Georgia reverses policy that required destruction of unused baby formula

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Cans returned to WIC clinics in the state will now be donated, instead of destroyed

Georgia has reversed a policy that mandated the destruction of thousands of cans of infant formula.

Up until last week, the state’s Department of Public Health required that unexpired and unopened formula returned to Georgia’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) be emptied into the trash or poured down the sink. Now, the DPH will allow returned WIC formula to be donated to local food pantries, a development described as “great news” by DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam.

The reversal comes after local hunger relief groups expressed their dismay over the state’s practice of destroying formula even amid a crippling shortage.

In a memo dated May 20 and shared with the AJC on Monday, the director of the Georgia WIC program, Sean Mack, urged local health officers to “immediately begin donating returned formula to community food programs.”

The single largest purchaser of infant formula in the nation, WIC provides it to low-income families. Local WIC clinics also take back unopened cans of formula when they turn out not to be a good fit for the infants they were intended for due to allergies, intolerance to a specific product or brand, or a recommendation by a pediatrician to change prescriptions. Parents who return formula to WIC are allowed to get a different product.

Chlorey Campbell is the founder of The Baby Pantry, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that helps roughly 1,500 local families access essential items – including formula – every month.

She says she looks forward to potentially receiving formula donations from WIC in the aftermath of the policy change.

“My view on it is I feel like no formula should go to waste,” Campbell said. She noted that formula was among The Baby Pantry’s most requested items even before the current shortage.

The White House has begun an effort to bring in formula from Europe, dubbed “Operation Fly Formula,” whose first shipment arrived Sunday in Indianapolis. It’s hoped the flights will bring some relief for parents by restocking hospitals, pharmacies and doctor’s offices. Altogether, about 1.5 million 8-ounce bottles of three formulas, which are hypoallergenic for children with cow’s milk protein allergies, are expected to arrive this week.

The formula crisis follows the closure of the nation’s largest domestic manufacturing plant in Michigan in February due to safety issues. Plans are to reopen the plant soon, but the manufacturer has said it could still take two months before formula begins to flow to retailers.

Georgia originally adopted the discarding policy in 2019, in response to nonbinding guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the WIC program at the national level and advised against donating returned products to ensure safety. The DPH conferred with the Food and Nutrition Service ahead of last Friday’s policy reversal, according to Nydam.

The new state policy requires WIC clinics to store returned formula in a “secure location … protected from spoilage, infestation, damage or other conditions that may damage the wholesomeness or degrade the nutritional value or safety of the formula.”

Returned formula cans will be inspected for visible defects and checked to ensure the “use-by-date” has not passed. All unexpired formula is required to be donated in the month it was received.

Whether the state policy change in favor of donating returned formula is permanent or temporary has yet to be decided, according to Nydam.

Roughly 190,000 people rely on WIC in the state.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.