The Agriculture Department’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program is one of the many forms of social assistance that could be seriously affected by Republican efforts to cut supposedly wasteful federal spending as a condition of approving an increase in the debt ceiling.
If there is waste in WIC, it’s not being caused by the low-income women receiving nutritional aid. A more likely culprit are the corporations providing the infant formula distributed through the program.
The Federal Trade Commission has revealed that it is investigating whether suppliers have been colluding in their bids for contracts awarded by the state agencies that administer WIC. Any such collusion would be made easier by the fact that the infant formula market in general and the WIC portion of it are dominated by three large companies.
Two of the three—Abbott Laboratories, which produces the Similac brand, and Nestlé, which sells the Gerber brand—have acknowledged that they are involved in the investigation, while Reckitt Benckiser has declined to comment.
This is not the first time these companies have come under regulatory scrutiny. Back in 2003 Abbott and a subsidiary paid a total of $600 million in civil and criminal penalties to resolve charges that the company made illegal payments to institutional purchasers of its tube-feeding products and then encouraged the customers to overbill government health programs.
Over the past two decades, Abbott and various subsidiaries have paid another $98 million in various False Claims Act cases brought by federal and state prosecutors. This does not include hundreds of millions more paid in false claims and antitrust penalties by the portions of Abbott that were spun off as AbbVie in 2013.
Nestlé’s infant formula business has a history of controversy for another reason. During the mid-1970s Nestlé was made the target of a campaign protesting the marketing of infant formula in poor countries. Activists from organizations such as INFACT and progressive religious groups charged that the aggressive marketing of formula by companies like Nestlé was causing health problems, in that poor mothers often had to combine the powder with unclean water and frequently diluted the expensive formula so much that babies remained malnourished.
Nestlé initially responded to the boycott of its products with a counter-campaign, seeking to discredit its critics. The company later changed its posture, agreeing to comply with a marketing code issued by the World Health Organization. In the years that followed, Nestlé was frequently criticized for failing to comply with the code and for engaging in various questionable practices.
In 2019 Reckitt Benckiser, based in the United Kingdom, paid over $1.3 billion in penalties in connection with the improper marketing of the opioid Suboxone. It paid another $50 million to the FTC to resolve allegations of engaging in a deceptive scheme to thwart the introduction of a low-cost generic alternative to that drug.
Reckitt entered the infant formula business through the 2017 acquisition of Mead Johnson, producer of Enfamil. In 2012 Mead Johnson had paid $12 million to settle allegations by the SEC that the company violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act through improper payments to healthcare professionals at government-run hospitals in China.
Given these rap sheets, along with controversies over recalls and shortages, it will not come as a surprise if the FTC finds that these companies engaged in bid-rigging. The remedy should involve an effort to attract more suppliers to the WIC infant formula market, especially honest ones.