The federal WIC program, which provides foods and nutrition services to 9 million low-income pregnant and postpartum women and young children, spends about $90 million extra each year on higher-priced infant formula with ingredients that supposedly boost children’s health and development. But it has no idea whether these ingredients work, and no way to find out.
Worse, the extra cost to WIC of buying foods with these ingredients is likely to grow quickly in coming years as manufacturers put them in more and more of the foods that WIC offers, like baby food and eggs.
This potential waste of taxpayer dollars would be irresponsible in the best of times. It’s doubly irresponsible at a time when federal programs will come under greater scrutiny for potential cuts due to huge budget deficits.
Safety isn’t the issue. The Food and Drug Administration already examines these “functional ingredients,” such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), arachidonic acid (ARA), and betacarotene, to make sure they’re safe. But the FDA isn’t equipped or authorized to determine whether these ingredients do what food manufacturers claim. So, for example, when a container of baby food with DHA states, “DHA & Choline helps support brain and eye development,” you have to take the manufacturer’s word for it.
The federal WIC program has no mechanism to review the research on the claimed benefits of functional ingredients and does not have policies about whether to offer them to WIC participants.
Under current law, state WIC programs decide whether to offer foods with these ingredients (while infant formula manufacturers decide whether to offer formulas with these ingredients.) But states aren’t equipped to determine whether the ingredients work either. And even if they were, a state-by-state approach to this issue doesn’t make sense. If an ingredient provides clinically significant benefits, WIC participants in all states should receive it; if it doesn’t, no state should waste federal tax dollars on it.
Congress has an opportunity to fix this problem when it renews WIC this year. It should direct the Agriculture Department, which runs WIC, to get expert advice from the independent, non-profit Institute of Medicine before deciding whether WIC should offer more costly products with functional ingredients.