Q: What caused the nationwide shortage of baby formula in the United States?
A: During COVID-19 lockdowns, Americans met with the inconvenience of empty store shelves for possibly the first time in their lifetimes as manufacturing and distribution channels were diverted to produce personal protection equipment (PPE) or sidelined by labor force shortages. Being forced to switch toilet paper brands or fix something else for supper is small potatoes compared to what’s happening in stores across America today. In the last several weeks, many parents have left the store empty-handed when they go to buy infant formula to feed their babies. There is an acute nationwide shortage; late last month 40 percent of the most popular baby formula brands were out of stock. It’s a matter of life and death for American families. I’ve often said any society is nine meals away from a revolution. Not being able to feed their baby drives moms and dads to take desperate measures, such as stockpiling formula if they can find it, or turning to unsafe homemade formulas. So how did the world’s biggest economy run out of baby formula? The baby formula shortage is compounded by regulatory bottlenecks and arguably, a lackadaisical response from the Biden administration that’s contributed to the crisis now facing parents. Back in February, the largest manufacturer of infant formula in the U.S. announced it was voluntarily recalling three types of baby formula due to consumer complaints about bacterial contaminants. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible to ensure the quality and safety of products on the shelf. It opened an investigation of a plant located in Michigan related to the recalled products following complaints that four infants who consumed formula made there were hospitalized. Two of the infants died. The manufacturer closed the plant during the investigation, but on May 11, the company announced it had found “no evidence to link our formulas to the infant illnesses.” However, once the plant gets the green light to re-open, it would take nearly two months for its baby formula to show up on store shelves. This puts moms and dads in a pickle. Unfortunately, the tone deaf response from the president that his administration would need to be “mind readers” to foresee the shortage occurring when the nation’s largest baby formula maker shut down one of its plants – more than three months ago – doesn’t give Congress or parents a lot of confidence that it’s up to the job.
Q: What can be done to solve the shortage?
A: As the shortage expanded to communities across the country, including Iowa, I heard from parents worried about getting access to the baby formula their infants needed to thrive and survive. One of my top priorities is listening to Iowans and ensuring their voices and concerns are heard. As Iowa’s U.S. Senator, I take my role as a good government watchdog very seriously. It’s my job to ensure the legislative branch writes tax, trade and antitrust laws that foster a competitive marketplace that encourages companies to meet supply and demand. Through oversight, I work to ensure the executive branch faithfully executes the laws as Congress intended. The ongoing nationwide shortage raises urgent questions that are keeping parents awake at night worrying about their ability to get their hands on baby formula. I urged the FDA to take its foot off the brakes and take immediate steps to address the shortage. The administration needs to take decisive action, such as cutting red tape and lifting trade barriers to accelerate imports from trusted partners who share similar safety standards. More than three months after the Michigan plant shut down, amid mounting pressure from Congress and the public, the Biden administration announced it will ask foreign manufacturers to apply to ship their formula to the United States. In my letter, I asked the FDA to review its quality control and investigative procedures that may have delayed or kept baby formula off the shelves unnecessarily. It’s imperative the United States re-establish a supply of infant formula so babies don’t suffer malnutrition or delayed development due to lack of nutrients. The baby formula shortage underscores the need for transparency in the FDA investigative process, scrutiny of trade barriers that restrict imports from entering the U.S. market and cutting red tape that inhibits manufacturers from getting into the business of critical, life-sustaining supply chains. Four manufacturers dominate the U.S. market and the tight supplies expose how dangerous a shortage of formula is to babies and patients with special nutritional needs who need it to survive. I’m co-sponsoring the FORMULA Act to help solve the shortage and help prevent this situation from happening again. It would waive regulatory and trade barriers to help boost supply in the U.S. and loosen restrictions in the women, infants, children (WIC) program to allow low-income families to use vouchers to purchase alternative brands. The Senate this week unanimously passed the Access to Baby Formula Act I co-sponsored to provide more flexibility for WIC families. I’ll continue working to ensure America’s supply of baby formula is replenished as quickly possible.