America suffers from baby formula shortages, knows why 3:02 (CNN) — The Biden administration is trying to make it easier for low-income families to buy whatever infant formula is available on store shelves in amid a nationwide shortage. About half of infant formula in the US is purchased by those using federal WIC benefits, which allows them to get the formula for free but restricts the type, size and brand they can select. About 1.2 million babies are on the WIC program, formally known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Each state has a contract with only one manufacturer. Abbott Nutrition, facing a massive recall of its formula, is the exclusive provider for about half of the babies on WIC. The February recall has exacerbated shortages caused by ongoing supply chain issues, leaving all parents with fewer options at many stores. President Joe Biden has been criticized for not addressing the problem sooner and for taking limited action. The US Department of Agriculture on Friday outlined steps it has already taken to help low-income families, primarily by providing waivers to states to give parents using WIC benefits a broader range of options, if they can find other brands on the shelves and their babies can easily switch formulas. Authorized since February, the waivers allow families to purchase alternative size containers, including those that exceed typical maximums, and formula forms, as well as purchase alternative brands without medical certificates. Flexibilities allow parents to get liquid concentrate or ready-to-eat formula, rather than just powder. A third type of exemption allows stores to accept exchanges of formula purchased with WIC benefits. The agency urged all states to take advantage of the flexibilities, echoing a call from the White House on Thursday. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to state health commissioners on Friday reiterating the exemptions available. Most states use all three exemptions, but Michigan uses two and Illinois uses none. Ten states and Puerto Rico are using an exemption. The waivers help ease some of the pressure on low-income families, said Geri Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the Food Research & Action Center, an advocacy group. “Parents would have the option to choose the formula that is available, rather than just being able to get the formula that is not on the shelf,” she said. Meanwhile, Abbott is paying rebates through August on competitor products in states where WIC families are limited to buying their formula. That will allow parents to get formula free of charge, regardless of the manufacturer. It is also directing supply from a production facility in Ireland to serve WIC families. Abbott and Gerber ramp up production A sign is posted at a CVS pharmacy indicating a shortage in baby food availability on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in Charlotte, North Carolina. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson) Abbott said Friday that it is working to increase formula supplies across the board by ramping up production at other facilities. Since February, the company says, it has imported “millions of cans” of powdered infant formula into the US from its facility in Cootehill, Ireland. It has also converted other manufacturing lines at a production facility in Columbus, Ohio, to make more ready-to-use Similac liquid formula. Additionally, the company says it is offering more generous coupons so consumers can purchase its products at a discounted price. In the meantime, Gerber said it has stepped up its efforts to produce more baby formula. It is a self-styled “small player” in the market. “We have significantly increased the amount of our infant formula available to consumers by increasing production and accelerating the general availability of the product to retailers and online, as well as in hospitals for the most vulnerable,” a Gerber spokesperson told CNN. on Friday. CNN’s Brenda Goodman and Jen Christensen contributed to this story.
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