Government failure

Following USDA Guidance, State Clinics Destroyed Thousands of Cans of Usable Baby Formula

The government worsens the baby formula shortage, again.


Amid a national shortage of baby formula, family care centers in at least two states discarded thousands of cans of unopened, unexpired baby formula—because state and federal officials said so.

Guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in November 2019 advises clinics run by state-level Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) programs to "dispose of unused, returned…infant formula." Formula might be returned for a number of reasons: parents might decide to switch brands at the recommendation of a doctor or due to an infant's allergic reaction, or they might simply not use all they've been given. When that happens, clinics are told to discard the returned formula—even if it is not expired.

"Unused, returned infant formula may have been inappropriately stored (e.g., exposed to extremely high temperatures), may be past its use-by-date, or subjected to tampering (e.g., labels or use-by dates changed)," the USDA advisory reads, in part. The same memo also warns against "donating unused, returned WIC infant formula to entities such as food banks or food pantries."

Apparently taking that memo to heart, WIC centers in Georgia have reportedly destroyed at least 16,459 cans of baby formula since October of last year, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which first reported on the frustrating policy last month.

The state also banned donations of formula to food banks and other locations. As a result, Georgia was "throwing formula down the sink," Vanesa Sarazua, founder of the Hispanic Alliance of Georgia, a nonprofit, told the paper. "I mean, talk about waste."

After that story gained widespread attention in Georgia media, the department announced this week that it was rescinding those guidelines for the state's WIC clinics. Under the new rules, WIC clinics will be instructed to donate returned, unopened cans of formula to local food banks, the state's Department of Public Health announced this week.

In North Carolina, an unknown number of cans of baby formula have been discarded by clinics following the same set of state and federal guidelines, according to a report from Raleigh-based WRAL. "Family care centers are among the last hopes for people searching for baby formula in North Carolina, but we now know they've also been throwing out supplies despite countless parents being in desperate need right now," WRAL reported last week.

A spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services confirmed to Reason that North Carolina's WIC programs "follow the USDA's guidance on returned formula to ensure safety." She added that the state does not keep count of how many cans of formula are returned and subsequently destroyed.

"The federal guidance on redistributing returned formulas addresses the multiple, potentially serious health risks to infants from using formula that was returned," the spokeswoman, Summer Tonizzo, said via email. She noted that the state was in the process of reviewing that policy due to the shortage, but could not provide additional details about how long that review might take or when a change might be enacted.

At the federal level, meanwhile, the USDA argues that states probably shouldn't have listened to their guidelines in the first place.

"To ensure the safety of infant formula, current [USDA Food and Nutrition Service] policy, recommends but does not require that WIC clinics dispose of unused, returned WIC infant formula in accordance with state and local health and safety laws," Daniel Shedd, a USDA spokesman, wrote to Reason in an email. The agency "is not planning to alter existing policy as WIC state agencies have flexibility to develop and/or update policies for the donation of unused, returned infant formula and are encouraged to do so in concert with their state health department and legal counsel," he added.

Of course, the USDA's worries about how returned formula might have been stored are worth taking seriously. Even if it is unexpired and unopened, there might be good reasons why a parent might not want to feed their infant that formula—and why a clinic might not want to vouch for it.

But in an environment where parents are scrambling to find any formula, those risks seem relatively less significant. Even when there isn't a shortage, parents should be given the option to take that formula. Now, especially, they should have that choice.

Destroying perfectly good formula when there are infants going hungry is yet another appalling government failure, on top of the trade and regulatory policies that created this mess in the first place. It's been months since the baby formula shortage became apparent, and yet the USDA guidance has not been updated or changed. Kudos to Georgia officials for changing their own rules, but that seems to have only happened because the media drew attention to this issue.

There's also something deeply troubling about the lack of responsibility being expressed by the agencies involved. The USDA says it sees no need to change its guidance because states ultimately make their own rules. State officials in North Carolina point to the USDA guidelines to justify their decision making. Prior to the change in state policy, Georgia officials told the Journal-Constitution that they were also following USDA guidance.

That's the great thing about a governmental screw-up, isn't it? There's always someone else to blame.