Friday, July 16, 2010

Formula Companies Say WIC & US Government Shouldn't Discriminate

I came across a really interesting article in the Washington Post titled, “Lobbying fight over infant formula highlights budget gridlock.” You may or may not be aware that in the United States, the biggest purchaser of infant formula is the US government via its WIC (Women, Infants & Children) nutrition program. Basically, the formula companies offer state governments rebates (sometimes as high as 98%) of the wholesale cost of the formula in exchange for an exclusive contract. They’re not being benevolent; they know that WIC doesn’t give a mom who’s formula feeding full-time enough formula to get her through the month and they’re betting when she does have to come out of her own pocket to buy formula, she’s going to stick to the brand she gets for free from WIC. To put in perspective how much WIC spends on formula, the WIC budget for fiscal year 2009 was about $7.3 billion and about $850 million went to the formula companies.

So you’ve noticed lately that the formula companies have all kinds of extra special ingredients they’ve added to the formula. These additives are things that are naturally found in breastmilk, like DHA, ARA and probiotics. Of course these additives are not the same as what is found in breastmilk, because that’s impossible. So the formula companies have to get them somewhere else, like from algae. There’s no proof that these additives confer any benefit to the baby, save for a few formula-sponsored studies. But of course these new formulas are more expensive, and as they add in more functional ingredients, the original, regular iron-fortified versions disappear from store shelves.

What does this have to do with lobbying? According to the Washington Post article,

“When WIC was reauthorized in 2004, Congress tucked in language telling states that when soliciting bids for infant formula, they could not require manufacturers to include or omit specific ingredients. You can guess what happened next: Formula makers began submitting bids only for the costlier products. A February 2010 Agriculture Department study pegged the added cost at $91 million annually, more than a tenth of the infant formula budget. Now new formulas with even more ingredients -- and even higher prices -- are being offered through WIC. With WIC up for reauthorization, the Senate Agriculture Committee has approved a measure to require the Agriculture Department to assess the additives. A House committee this week is poised to consider a similar provision that directs USDA to get the best scientific advice before deciding whether to provide costlier foods with extra ingredients.
Not surprisingly, formula makers -- Abbott, Nestle and Mead Johnson -- are lobbying hard against the provision. So is the manufacturer of the additives, Martek Biosciences Corp., which has brought in well-connected Democratic lobbyist Lanny Davis. “

There are a lot of issues here we could tackle. First, is the too cozy relationship the formula companies have with WIC. The fact that the infant formula companies are spending big bucks to lobby in Washington proves just how lucrative this business really is, and what a shame that such an inferior product is being fed to the majority of babies, some from day one. We could also focus our rage on how although the FDA has approved these functional ingredients as “safe,” no one can prove there’s any actual benefit for babies, and if there were, what does that say about the infant formula business? Essentially they’re making it all up as they go along, constantly tweaking the recipe. It’s one big experiment, so for the babies who got 2001’s version, uh…sorry about your eyesight and IQ points.

While all of these aspects of this saga make me stabby, I have to admit I wasn’t expecting the formula companies to pull the race card. But lo and behold they did! According to the International Formula Council, which is made up of representatives from Nestle, Enfamil & Similac, to not force WIC to buy the formula with the functional ingredients would create a “two-tiered system, in which nutritionally at-risk WIC participants, many of whom are minorities, are denied access to products widely available to the general public.”

Are you as disgusted as I am? And do you, for one single, solitary second believe that the formula companies are worried about the health and fate of black and brown babies? And while I do appreciate their “concern,” wouldn’t a better way for them to prove how much they care about poor babies of color be to stop aggressively marketing their product to their mothers? Or perhaps they could back off, and let the decision be based on science, not their own bottom line? Maybe they could think about how, if formula eats up even more of the WIC food budget, that means less fruits and vegetables for WIC eligible families. Heck, since they care so much about the poor, maybe they should think about all the families who will no longer be able to receive WIC because there won't be enough money to go around once we cover their worthless functional ingredients?

I think we all agree that if the ingredients were really going to make a difference, and protect and nourish formula-fed babies in a manner more like breastmilk, that the increased cost would be justifiable and we'd be all for it. So if the formula companies are so sure that their new products are superior, why not let scientists--ones NOT on their payroll--determine it?

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