The ruckus about the shortage of infant formula has lawmakers waking up to how the federal nutrition program might help a handful of manufacturers of formula control this U.S. market.

The widely-used nutrition program for infants, women and children, referred to as WIC is the biggest purchaser for formulas in the U.S., with more than half of infant formula sold available in U.S. going through the program. There are only two twocompanies offer nearly 90% of children who benefit from the program, partly due to the manner in which WIC grants its contracts.

Today, lawmakers, and particularly Democrats are focusing on this reality as they attempt to prevent another infant formula shortage similar to that caused in part by a single factory shut down located in Michigan during February. They recognize, however, that Congress does not have the resources or political will to address more extensive reforms at this point and instead are focusing on making progress on legislation that could create urgent measures to safeguard the millions of WIC recipients from delays or recalls.

“It is a pity to think that in this country there is the problem of a shortage of baby milk. I believe we should react to this and then review the way we structure contracting,” said Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), one of the lawmakers who authored the legislation, as well as Representatives. Michelle Steel (R-Calif.) and Education and Labor Chair Bobby Scott (D-Va.). The House quickly passed the WIC bill on Wednesday evening by a rare unanimity vote of 414 votes to 9. The lawmakers also approved the $28 million emergency spending bill that will aid in helping FDA replenish shelves and improve the safety of food items.

It shut down its plant shut down its plant in Sturgis, Mich. in February following the discovery that it was connected with four instances of an uncommon bacteria-related infection. The four children who contracted the infection were ill


were hospitalized; two died. The company also announced a voluntary recall for key products produced there, including Similac which came into effect following the discovery that FDA discovered major problems with food safety in the Sturgis plant. Abbott was thought to control around 40 percent of the U.S. formula market before the recall began in addition, Sturgis was the largest of the three plants. Sturgis plant is believed to have contributed to about a fifth of U.S. supply. (The Abbott company hasn’t made any comments on the size of its market share, or specific numbers.) The company announced on Monday that Abbott struck a bargain with FDA on the steps required to restart the facility and estimates that it will take two weeks.

Alongside Abbott three other formula manufacturers have a major share of the market domestically: Mead Johnson, and in lesser amounts, Nestle and Perrigo. Together, these four companies account for around 90% of U.S. formula market.

According in according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “This result is significant because a producer earns approximately 20 times the amount of profits from each bottle of formula that is sold to a non-WIC user as from a can bought by WIC.”

Hayes describes the sole-sourcing contracts, as well as the benefits they provide to markets, “a huge problem that many Americans were unaware of.” However, she declares that fixing the contract “would require a more extensive solution” as opposed to the one Congress is proposing at present.

The reason could be due to the fact that WIC is a law called Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which Congress regularly revisits annually, yet not been addressed for more than a decade, as school meals and other provisions in the bill became more political. The House as well as Senate leaders had said they would consider the issue of reauthorization in this year’s session but the process was put on hold when Capitol Hill tried to advance Biden’s huge budget for climate change and spending. When that failed, committees did not pick it back up.

The WIC program has, for the most part, received support from both parties over time, due to the diversity of families and the regions it serves and also because it has the potential to improve children’s health , which can save expenses in the long run. However, there have some efforts in recent times to improve key elements that comprise the WIC program, such as revamping the food staples part of the program, and distributing more benefits via EBT cards, and possibly the possibility of allowing internet-based WIC purchases. Contracting for infant formula was nearly completely not discussed in the policy debate until the crisis hit.

Brandon Lipps, a former Trump administration USDA official, led WIC along with other nutritional programs during the outbreak and economic consequences — as families relied heavily on WIC to ensure their children’s nutritional needs.

“WIC is a vital program to ensure that every mom and child get adequate nutrition and, more importantly getting them an excellent starting point in the world. I’m sure that folks from both sides are aware of this,” Lipps said.

Lipps said the bipartisan bill provides restricted flexibility to administrations facing crises such as the recall that is currently taking place and the shortages. Lipps said there’s no quick policy or political solution to the issues related to sole-sourcing provisions of state contracts and added that the “finger pointed at” within Congress has become “a disorientation.”

“When you step outside of the bipartisan legislation there is a lot of change in various directions” Lipps said. “As lawmakers shift their focus to talk about ways to enhance WIC’s effectiveness, I believe there’s plenty of time ahead to sit together at a table to comprehend the issues and think about opportunities that they can explore as they progress.”

Senate Agriculture chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is in charge of this WIC version of the bill that is being debated in the Senate and even the minor changes that it suggests are likely to be more difficult. Republicans from both the House as well as the Senate have voiced their concern about the Biden administration’s use of waiver powers similar to those this bill proposes in order to extend other nutrition programs during the outbreak, including those under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as SNAP. One Senate GOP advisor However, he predicted that it would get the required 10 Republican votes needed to be passed.

Stabenow stated to POLITICO Wednesday that at present nine Republicans co-sponsoring the Senate bill, which includes Senate Agriculture Chairman John Boozman (R-Ark.) The committee is considering ways to improve competition in the infant formula market however, Stabenow urged caution against changing sole-state contracts because it saves taxpayer money all over.

Businesses compete for state-owned contracts, Stabenow noted. It’s similar to how lawmakers would like the government to be in a position to negotiate prices for drugs for Medicare and essentially use the power of large-scale buying to negotiate steep discounts.

“That is crucial for WIC. We want to ensure that we’re paying the least costs for our mothers and their babies,” Stabenow said. “At the same time, we’ll need more competition in the contracts and more manufacturing, as well as greater resiliency.”