WIC Changes Pose Danger to Dairy
by Stephen Barlas
The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is about to propose changes in WIC food packages that would reduce purchases of milk and cheese. That prospect sent representatives of the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) to the White House in early June for a meeting with officials at the office of management and budget (OMB), which has the authority to force changes in proposed federal regulations before they are released by an agency such as the FNS, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Clay Hough, senior vice president and general counsel at IDFA, expects the FNS proposed rule to hit the streets sometime this summer.
The proposed changes to the feeding program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) have been expected for some time. The FNS published an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) in September 2003 asking for comments on how the composition of the seven packages, each serving a different subgroup of young mothers and/or their young children up to age 5, should be changed in light of changes in the WIC population and the most current nutritional thinking. The packages consist of milk, fruit juice, cereal, eggs and meat, and have remained basically the same over the last 30 years since the WIC program was established.
After receiving comments, the FNS asked the Institute of Medicine, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences, to produce a report suggesting changes in the seven food packages. The IOM report issued in April 2005 suggested changing the packages to emphasize fresh fruit and vegetables, which have not been included; allowing soymilk to be substituted for regular milk; and reducing the amount of cheese that can be substituted for milk.
In explaining its recommendations, the IOM committee alluded to changes in the WIC population, by mentioning, for example, a study of women in California with Chinese heritage who “value other sources of calcium (e.g. dark green vegetables and tofu) more highly than cheese in the current WIC packages. The report went on to say that some WIC participants have specific conditions, such as milk allergies and lactose intolerance. Other WIC participants have diverse preferences, for example, choosing to avoid milk and other animal products for personal reasons unrelated to ethnicity or cultural heritage.
The National WIC Association has been a leading proponent of such changes. Douglas Greenaway, executive director of the association, says dairy will remain an integral part of the food packages. But he acknowledges that the USDA and Congress have dictated that any changes have to be cost neutral. “So in a very difficult budget environment, if the food packages are going to respond to current dietary science and include fresh and canned fruits and vegetables and other culturally sensitive foods, there will need to be some trade-offs,” Greenway says. He notes, though, that the IOM recommendations don’t imply significant changes for milk consumption, using as an example food package four, for young children, which the IOM recommended cutting from 24 quarts of milk a month to 16 quarts.
IDFA and NMPF, however, view the IOM recommendations as a serious threat to milk and cheese sales. They sent a letter to Eric Bost, then undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, six months after the IOM report was published. In that letter, the two groups questioned “the dramatic reduction in the number of dairy servings embodied in the recommendations.” They tagged the economic impact of reduced dairy sales to the WIC program at more than $300 million a year.
Rob Byrne, NMPF’s senior vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs, says, “Our best educated guess is the FNS will follow the IOM recommendations closely when it publishes its proposed rule.”
Stephen Barlas has been a full-time freelance Washington editor for business and trade magazines since 1981.