These families buy about half of the infant formula in the whole country. Here’s how the Biden administration is trying to help them | CNN Politics




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The Biden administration is seeking to make it easier for low-income families to purchase any infant formula available on store shelves amid a national shortage.

In the United States, about half of infant formula is purchased by those using federal WIC benefits, which allows them to get the formula for free, but limits the type, size, and brand they can select. .

Some 1.2 million infants participate in the WIC program, officially known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. Each state has a contract with only one manufacturer. Abbott Nutrition, which is facing a massive recall of its formula, is the exclusive supplier to about half of WIC’s infants.

The February recall exacerbated shortages caused by ongoing supply chain issues, leaving all parents with fewer choices at many stores. President Joe Biden has been criticized for not addressing the issue sooner and for taking limited action.

On Friday, the US Department of Agriculture outlined steps it has already taken to help low-income families, primarily by granting waivers to states to give parents using WIC benefits a wider range of options – if they can find other brands on the shelves and their babies can easily switch formulas.

Allowed since February, the waivers allow families to buy other container sizes, including those that exceed typical maximums, and forms of infant formula, as well as buy other brands without doctors’ notes. The flexes allow parents to get a liquid concentrate or ready-to-eat formula, rather than just a powder.

A third type of waiver allows stores to accept exchanges of formula purchased with WIC benefits.

The agency urged all states to take advantage of the flexibilities, echoing a call from the White House on Thursday. On Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to state health commissioners reiterating the available waivers.

Most states use all three waivers, but Michigan uses two and Illinois uses none. Ten states and Puerto Rico use a waiver.

The waivers help relieve some of the pressure on low-income families, said Geri Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the Food Research & Action Center, an advocacy group.

“Parents would have the flexibility to choose whatever formula is available, instead of only being able to get formula that’s not on the shelf,” she said.

Abbott, meanwhile, is paying rebates through August on competitors’ products in states where WIC families are restricted from purchasing its formula. This will allow parents to get formula for free, regardless of the manufacturer. He also leads the supply from a production plant in Ireland to serve WIC families.

Abbott said Friday it is working to increase formula supply at all levels by increasing production at other facilities. Since February, according to the company, it has imported “millions of boxes” of powdered infant formula into the United States from its factory in Cootehill, Ireland. It also converted other manufacturing lines at a production facility in Columbus, Ohio, to manufacture more ready-to-use Similac liquid formulas.

Additionally, the company claims to offer more generous coupons so that consumers can buy its products at a discounted price.

Meanwhile, Gerber said he has accelerated his efforts to produce more formula milk. It is a self-proclaimed “small player” in the market.

“We have significantly increased the amount of our infant formula available to consumers by increasing production and accelerating the general availability of products at retailers and online, as well as in hospitals for the most vulnerable people,” said a Gerber spokesperson told CNN on Friday.