WASHINGTON ― Lawmakers are outraged about the alarming nationwide shortage of baby formula, but as with most things in Congress, there’s more grandstanding than solutions.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on Wednesday added his voice to the growing chorus of Republican legislators pointing a finger at President Joe Biden and his administration, which he called “characteristically sluggish and halting” in their response.
“The Administration should have foreseen these supply shortages,” McConnell said in a statement. “But the Biden Administration has been too slow and passive about getting production back up and running. Both Republican and Democratic Senators have demanded answers from the Administration and gotten none.”
“The President and his team must get ahold of the situation fast and do right by America’s moms, dads, and babies,” he added.
Baby formula is usually the only main nutrition doctors recommend for babies younger than 1 year besides breastmilk. For mothers who can’t breastfeed or who need to supplement their milk, formula is essential. And switching from one type of formula to another can upset a baby’s digestion, which can mess with a baby’s sleep routine and thus can be an all-around disaster for parents ― so being unable to obtain a familiar brand can be a major problem.
Senior House Democrats reportedly discussed the shortage during internal meetings on Tuesday, and other members ― especially Republicans ― made it clear they are aware of the problem.
“Last night, this House approved $40 billion for Ukraine as American families go without baby formula,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said Wednesday.
The Food and Drug Administration said it was working to ramp up production of baby formula after a major manufacturer announced a recall earlier this year when the FDA warned about dangerous bacterial infections in four infants who had consumed formula from an Abbott Nutrition facility in Sturgis, Michigan.
The shortage has led retailers to limit how much formula parents can buy at stores; many parents have had trouble finding any formula at all.
“We recognize that many consumers have been unable to access infant formula and critical medical foods they are accustomed to using and are frustrated by their inability to do so,” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said. “We are doing everything in our power to ensure there is adequate product available where and when they need it.”
Many other lawmakers have complained about the shortage ― but it’s not clear what more Congress or the administration can do to immediately alleviate the situation.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday described the shortage as entirely the FDA’s problem, adding that there’s no “national stockpile” of baby formula.
Some lawmakers have written letters to the FDA demanding to know why the agency ordered the shutdown of Abbott Nutrition’s Michigan plant without accounting for other supply of baby formula.
“I think we need to understand how we got in the difficulty that we’re currently facing and whether the FDA actually considered that as they were considering the actions they took and how they evaluate supply challenges,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told HuffPost on Wednesday. “At the same time, there’s a safety risk.”
Peter Pitts, a former FDA associate commissioner and president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, said the FDA had no choice but to shut the facility.
“Members of Congress are really good at jumping up and down looking for somebody to blame ― the fact of the matter was the FDA was obligated to shut down this facility,” Pitts told HuffPost. “There’s no such thing as baby formula that’s kind of OK.”
Congress should boost FDA funding so the agency can do more inspections, Pitts said, arguing that a better-regulated industry would have higher standards for itself. He also said Biden should appoint a blue-ribbon commission to investigate shortages in FDA-regulated industries.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, shared a report from a whistleblower last month about problems at the Sturgis facility, including falsification of records, the release of untested formula and hiding information from the FDA during a 2019 audit.
The formula shortage began even before the Abbott recall and has raised questions about industry consolidation. Abott and three other companies control over nearly 90% of the formula market.
The government is also heavily involved in the formula industry through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, which gives low-income mothers a monthly voucher for healthy food for babies and children under 5. The state agencies that administer WIC are required to control formula costs through competitive bidding with manufacturers.
Former Rep. Abby Finkenauer, who is now running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley in November, has suggested Biden invoke the Defense Production Act to force the production of more formula. The White House has not directly addressed the issue, and the idea does not appear to have caught on in Congress as of yet.
Some Democrats had been calling attention to the situation months before the latest wave of lawmakers chimed in. Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) wrote to Abbott Nutrition in February, pressing Abbott for answers about the shuttered Michigan plant.
“It is completely unacceptable that manufacturing conditions allowed a contaminated product to reach babies, and that it took months for the company to act to warn parents and caregivers about this danger,” the senators wrote at the time.