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Government May Require Testing on New Premium Baby Formulas

An article this week in the Washington Post caught my eye. It's titled "Lobbying fight over infant formula highlights budget gridlock.

Here's the story: WIC is the country's largest purchaser of infant formula. In 2002, the formula companies started including additives such as DHA and more recently probiotics to their formulas. These formulas sell for a premium.

Then in 2004, Congress included a provision in the WIC reauthorization bill which prohibited states from requiring or omitting certain ingredients. The article states:

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.

All well and good if the pricier formulas were clearly better for babies. (The best thing for babies is breast milk, but that's another matter.) Manufacturers claim that the additives promote brain and eye development, and that the evidence for this is overwhelming. But while the Food and Drug Administration has approved the additives' safety, it has not -- because it says that's not part of its mandate -- looked into whether they have the claimed beneficial effects.

No one expects WIC to go back to the old formula.  In fact, it's not even available. The real issue is what happens as these kinds of ingredients proliferate.  DHA and ARA are turning up in everything from baby foods to eggs to juice, along with other ingredients such as prebiotics, probiotics, lutein and lycopene. Additives are threatening to become The Thing That Ate the WIC Budget.

WIC is now up for reauthorization again, and this time the Senate Agriculture Committee has included a provision requiring the USDA, which runs the WIC program, to get the best scientific advice before determining whether taxpayers should spring for more costly products.

The formula companies are, not surprisingly, very upset about this provision. They market their products as far superior to prior products, and don't appear to want to subject them to independent review.  But obviously the bigger issue is that if such a review were to not show a clear benefit, they might not be able to sell it to their largest customer anymore. 

A lobbyist for the formula industry argues that if the new formulas are subject to scientific review, they will result in depriving poor women and women of color of the newer formulas. But the author of the article points out that advocacy groups for these women, such as the National WIC Association, are in favor of the amendment. 

Best of all, the lobbyist argues that "the issue was being pushed by unnamed "lactivists" who want to force all women to use breast milk."

The article cites this as an example of special interest influence in Washington. It certainly shines a light on what a big business formula is. But to me, the story is about how formula companies are permitted to create products used on millions of the most vulnerable members of our society, without having to prove their safety or purported health benefits to any independent, scientific body. They are obviously nervous about having to do so. I guess I have to wonder, if they're so confident of the superiority of their products, what's the big deal? 


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