Attention child nutrition shoppers no-brainer for WIC in CNA

House leaders will need to decide whether to protect the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) from almost $100 million annually in potentially unnecessary costs or let the formula and additives industry continue to reap handsome profits from the program.

Just before adjourning in August, the Senate passed a stripped-down version of the CNA which quietly dropped a modest WIC reform that was making the infant formula industry unhappy. Fiscal prudence and good science should have made this reform a no-brainer but industry lobbyists with the help of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, were able to kill the common-sense provision at the last minute.

The language in question would direct USDA, WIC’s administrator to establish a science-based process for assessing whether or not WIC should offer foods that contain new “functional ingredients.” These include additives like DHA/ARA, “probiotics,” and others, which are increasingly showing up in infant formula, baby food, juice, milk, eggs, bread, and other WIC-allowable items. These “value-added” foods are more expensive, and are heavily marketed as improving a baby’s immunity, brain development, or digestion. However, there is no clear scientific consensus that they confer any health benefits to full-term infants or toddlers. The WIC program provides healthy foods, nutrition education, and health care referrals to more than 9 million low-income women and their young children, serving almost half of all infants in the United States. WIC is by far the nation’s largest purchaser of formula, accounting for 60% of total sales.

Right now, no agency in the federal government looks systematically at the research to determine whether or not functional ingredients provide the benefits being touted. FDA has the authority to regulate ingredient safety, but not the efficacy, of these “new, improved” foods and formulas, and thus can’t regulate accuracy of the related marketing claims. USDA’s Economic Research Service recently determined that functional ingredients in infant formula are costing WIC upwards of $90 million annually in additional expenditures—that’s more than 10% of WIC’s infant formula budget. A few years ago, every other WIC food item was scrutinized by the Institute of Medicine, to determine that there was value to including them in updated packages. There is no reason that new functional ingredients shouldn’t undergo a similar review. With looming deficits, it’s crucial to ensure every dollar spent by WIC is spent wisely, so that taxpayers – and participants -- get best value.

The CNA bills passed out of both House and Senate Committees contained language that would provide USDA with explicit authority to evaluate the public health benefits of offering WIC foods with new ingredients. Plain-language results would also be shared with all consumers. You might think that companies confident in their products’ value would welcome the chance for a federal stamp of approval, not fight it.  But the Big Three formula manufacturers—Nestle, Mead Johnson, and Abbot Laboratories – did just that. They have offices and facilities in a number of states, as do the makers of the additives, in particular Martek Biosciences Corporation, the only manufacturer of DHA in the country (DHA is already in virtually all infant formulas, so the provision is not intended to undo that). The PAC of Abbott Laboratories, a global pharmaceutical company, alone gave more than $1.5 million in federal campaign contributions in the 2008 election cycle and the PAC has made approximately $1 million in expenditures this cycle. Martek hired DC lobbyist Lanny Davis to open doors on Capitol Hill.

Anti-hunger advocates, WIC, and public health supporters are urging the House not accede to the Senate’s stripped-down version of the CNA, but to move the bill passed out of Education and Labor Committee instead.  Without a show of courage from the House leadership, the story of WIC and functional ingredients could turn out to be yet another well-known Washington narrative -- powerful, wealthy corporations fighting straightforward, evidence-based policymaking. Marketing hype and confusing labels in today’s supermarket aisles can befuddle even the savviest shoppers. The opportunity to protect WIC’s integrity is in the hands of Congress. Let’s hope the big bucks- lobbying push on this modest proposal doesn’t fool Members.

Laurie True is the Executive Director of the California WIC Association, representing the largest WIC program in the nation. She is a public health nutritionist and has advocated on low-income food policy issues for the past 25 years.