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Fixing WIC’s Costly Blind Spot

Tomorrow a House committee will consider a bill to renew the WIC program, which provides carefully selected foods and nutrition services to 9 million low-income pregnant and postpartum women and young children.  As I explained in this paper (and this blog post and this podcast), the program 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 actually work.  Congress now has a chance to address the issue.

Right now no one in the federal government is looking systematically at whether the extra ingredients, which manufacturers are increasingly adding to the foods and infant formula WIC provides, offer the advertised benefits.  There’s nothing to prevent manufacturers from putting worthless new ingredients in their infant formula and foisting the new, more expensive products on state WIC programs.

Committee Chair George Miller (D-CA) plans to introduce a sensible provision that would direct the Agriculture Department to seek the best scientific advice on whether WIC should offer foods that contain extra ingredients.  The Agriculture Secretary could then take this information into account in deciding what items should be in the WIC food package.

This would ensure that program participants receive the foods that offer the best nutritional value while helping prevent unnecessary federal spending on ingredients that don’t work.

Over the years, WIC has enjoyed widespread bipartisan support in Congress because it is cost-effective and studies show it has improved participants’ nutrition and health.  Rep. Miller’s proposal would help keep the program on track.

Unfortunately, the companies that make these extra ingredients and the foods that include them are likely to try to block this provision.  But at a time of increasing concern about deficits and debt, it makes no sense to deny USDA the best scientific advice on whether items that raise federal costs offer any benefits.

Update:  See columnist Ruth Marcus's take on this issue in today's Washington Post: Lobbying fight over infant formula highlights budget gridlock