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By Tami Luhby, CNN
About half of the infant formula in the US is purchased by those using federal WIC benefits, which allow them to obtain the formula for free but restrict what type, size and brand they can select.
Some 1.2 million infants are in the WIC program, formally known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Each state has a contract with a single manufacturer. Abbott Nutrition, which is contending with a massive recall of its formula, is the exclusive provider to about half of infants in WIC.
The February recall has exacerbated shortages caused by ongoing supply chain issues, leaving all parents with fewer choices in many stores. President Joe Biden has come under fire for not addressing the problem sooner and for taking limited action.
The US Department of Agriculture on Friday outlined the steps it has already taken to help low-income families, mainly by providing waivers to states to give parents using WIC benefits a wider array of options — if they can find other brands on the shelves and their babies can easily switch formulas.
Authorized since February, the waivers allow families to purchase alternate container sizes, including those that exceed typical maximums, and forms of formula, as well as to buy alternate brands without doctors’ notes. The flexibilities enable parents to get liquid concentrate or ready-to-eat formula, rather than just powdered.
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. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to state health commissioners on Friday reiterating the waivers that are available.
Most states are using all three waivers, but Michigan is using two and Illinois is not using any. Ten states and Puerto Rico are using one 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 option to choose the formula that’s available, as opposed to only being able to get formula that isn’t on the shelf,” she said.
Abbott, meanwhile, is paying rebates through August on competitors’ products in states where WIC families are limited to buying its formula. That will allow parents to obtain formula free of charge regardless of the manufacturer. It is also directing supply from a production facility in Ireland to serve WIC families.
Abbott and Gerber ramp up production
Abbott said Friday that it is working to increase formula supplies across the board by stepping up production at other facilities. Since February, the company says, it has imported “millions of cans” of powdered infant formula into the US from its facility in Cootehill, Ireland. It has also converted other manufacturing lines at a production facility in Columbus, Ohio, to make more ready-to-feed Similac liquid formula.
Additionally, the company says it is offering more generous coupons so that consumers can purchase its products at a discounted price.
Meanwhile, Gerber said it has accelerated its efforts to produce more baby formula. It is a self-described “small player” in the market.
“We have significantly increased the amount of our infant formula available to consumers by ramping up production and accelerating general product availability to retailers and online, as well as in hospitals for those most vulnerable,” a Gerber spokesperson told CNN on Friday.
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CNN’s Brenda Goodman and Jen Christensen contributed to this story.