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Podcast: New Ingredients Raising Costs for “WIC” Program

In this podcast we’ll discuss WIC, a federal food and nutrition program, and the impact of a trend toward food manufacturers putting new ingredients in basic items like infant formula, baby food, and juice. I’m Michelle Bazie and I’m joined by Zoë Neuberger, Senior Policy Analyst in the Center’s Food Assistance division.

1. Zoë, tell us a little bit about the WIC program.

WIC is officially known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children – hence the abbreviation. It’s a federally-funded program that provides food and nutrition education to more than 9 million low-income women and young children. As a result of a rigorous science-based process that recently culminated in changes to the foods WIC offers, WIC provides about a dozen specific nutritious foods that are selected because they are lacking in the diets of participants. For example, women and children now get fruits and vegetables each month. WIC is one of the rare programs that enjoys widespread bipartisan support because it’s cost-effective and has been shown to improve the nutrition and health of participants.

2. Okay, so if WIC foods were carefully selected based on a scientific review, why should we be concerned?

Well, there’s a new trend that emerged since that review. The trend started with infant formula, but it has since spread to other foods. Infant formula is now made with ingredients, such as prebiotics, probiotics, lutein, lycopene, and betacarotene that manufacturers advertise as aiding children’s health and development. But formulas with these ingredients cost more. WIC spends about $90 million each year (that’s about 10% of the total amount the program spends on formula) just to buy formula with these extra ingredients.

3. If these ingredients are supposed to help children’s health and development -- that seems like a good idea. Do they actually work?

That’s the thing, Michelle. No one in the federal government is taking a systematic look. We know these ingredients aren’t harmful because the FDA makes sure they’re safe. But the FDA isn’t equipped or authorized to determine whether these ingredients do what food manufacturers claim they do. 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. And the federal WIC program has no mechanism to review the research evidence on the claimed benefits of these ingredients to decide whether to offer them to WIC participants.

4. So how do these foods get added into the program? Who decides?

Well amazingly enough it’s actually infant formula manufacturers that decide whether to offer formulas with these ingredients. And for other foods, each state WIC program decides whether to offer foods 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 every state should receive it; and if it doesn’t, no state should waste federal tax dollars on it.

5. What’s the impact of these extra costs?

The extra cost of buying foods with these ingredients is likely to grow as manufacturers put them in more and more of the foods WIC offers, like baby food and eggs. Nobody wants to waste tax payer dollars even in the best of times, but it’s irresponsible at a time when federal programs will be coming under greater scrutiny for potential cuts.

6. What’s the bottom line?

The current system is outrageous! We should be looking at the science. Fortunately, Congress has an opportunity to address this problem when it renews WIC this year. It should direct the Agriculture Department, which oversees WIC, to get expert advice from the independent, non-profit Institute of Medicine before deciding whether WIC should offer more costly products with these ingredients.

Thanks for joining me today, Zoë.