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USDA Steps Up Efforts to Restock Baby Formula for WIC Beneficiaries

May 25, 2022 by Alexa Hornbeck
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met the first shipment of baby formula that was transported from Europe by the military in Operation Fly Formula to Indianapolis, Indiana, on May 22, 2022. USDA photo

WASHINGTON — Many Americans desperately seeking baby formula have experienced empty shelves over the last few months. Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture is increasing efforts to restock those shelves, especially for low-income families where the impact of the shortage has been most severe.

“It goes without saying this is an incredibly stressful time that no parent should have to experience… families are worried about finding enough infant formula to feed their babies,” said Stacey Dean, who serves as the deputy under secretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, during the Wiring WIC Health and Technology Initiative webinar held by New America. 

“We are trying to expedite formula from overseas that was already planned to come in… Gerber or Nestlé has an overseas factory… and we used USDA and Department of Defense carriers to get it here faster,” said Dean.

Dean said the USDA, Department of Defense, Department of Transportation and Department of Health and Human Services collaborated over the weekend to put together one of many flights, known as Operation Fly Formula, in which they brought about 70,000 pounds of baby formula from some of the 14 FDA-approved overseas sites which produce it.  

“HHS is now working with Federal Express to distribute that across the country and get it to babies with particular medical needs because that’s where we received the most acute shortage,” said Dean.

The Biden administration announced that a second fly formula operation of 2 million cans of infant formula is expected to happen in the beginning of June.

“We are expediting the increase of supply, and will continue to take steps to ensure resilience of supply, and ensure [a shortage] never happens,” said Dean.

The baby formula shortage occurred due to a series of missteps by Abbott Nutrition which supplies formula to about 47% of infants receiving WIC benefits. Mead Johnson, by comparison, provides 40%, and Gerber, which is manufactured by Nestlé, provides 12%, according to data from the National WIC Association.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a warning on Feb. 17 to consumers not to use certain powdered infant formula products from Abbott Nutrition’s Sturgis facility, and a voluntary recall of the formula was issued by the manufacturer on the same day.

A bacteria that can be deadly for infants, known as Cronobacter sakazakii, was discovered at the facility during inspections that occurred from January to March, and is said to be a contributing cause of a few infant deaths. 

Dean said in February, the USDA issued waivers to 48 State WIC Agencies to facilitate the immediate and longer-term response to infant formula shortages stemming from the Abbott recall.

As of Monday, Dean said that 200 waivers have been requested for states, and 100 of those within the first three days of the formula recall.

“The good news is that baby formula [manufacturers] produced more [this month] than the month preceding the recall,” said Dean. 

“Those labor authorities are now permanent and got somewhat expanded authority to prevent future disruptions,” continued Dean.

Dean said that community health clinics and children’s organizations have also worked to raise awareness about WIC’s impact in services, but that ‘in-reach’ efforts and performance metrics need to be stepped up.

“The idea of in-reach is, for example, identifying pregnant women, infants, or toddlers on Medicaid and letting them know about WIC, but I also think [we need to set] performance metrics expectations,” said Dean.

Dean said that to boost performance metrics every governor could ask their Department of Health or Human Services how many families are WIC eligible and on Medicaid, and how many of them are enrolled in WIC, and request a report be generated each month. 

“There’s a large share of eligibles on Medicaid or SNAP that are not enrolled in WIC, and we have to set the strategies around how to identify them and make the experience better,” said Dean.

According to Dean, about 50% of all infants born in the U.S. are enrolled in WIC, and 80% of current WIC participants qualify for one or more federal programs.

Dean said the USDA has been using digital outreach from other federal existing programs to share ways of awareness about the impact of shortages and WIC services via text messaging. 

Dean said that online shopping will also need to become an option for WIC participants, and that is a current top-of-the-line goal of the USDA. 

The declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic also allowed for waivers which has helped to accelerate some of the USDA recommendations for addressing formula shortages. 

“A lot of the waivers… COVID waivers… we eased up on some of the in-person requirements. We are very interested in sorting out which of those we can keep and carry forward…we’re going to need to talk to Congress about carrying that flexibility forward,” said Dean. 

Many of the flexibilities granted during the COVID-19 pandemic were extended on May 21 when President Biden signed into law the Access to Baby Formula Act to ensure that infant formula is never in short supply ever again.

“We just passed a very important bill to make sure WIC moms and babies are able to get the formula they need in the middle of this crisis,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D- Mich., during the webinar.

Under the WIC program, states contract with specific formula manufacturers and WIC vouchers can only be redeemed for manufacturers that have been contracted within the state.

The law will allow vendors to exchange or substitute authorized supplemental foods, allow flexibility so that a doctor’s note is not needed to access another brand of formula, allow flexibility for the maximum monthly allowance of infant formula, and allow for additional flexibility as long as manufacturers do not weaken the nutrition quality of the product. 

It will also require formula manufacturers to devise plans for shortages and make sure moms and babies who rely on the WIC program have the formula they need. 

The law will also give the USDA permanent authority to allow for WIC flexibilities and others, should another future emergency occur within the baby formula supply chain.

Alexa can be reached at alexa@thewellnews.com 

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