White House Criticized as Baby Formula Shortage Worsens

‘This is a matter of life or death. President Biden and the FDA must do more.’

A sign outlining limits on the purchase of baby formula hangs on the edge of an empty shelf for the product in a King Soopers grocery store May 11, 2022, in southeast Denver. AP/David Zalubowski

The limited and vaguely outlined measures just announced by the White House to tackle the nation’s baby formula shortage will likely do little to assuage parents’ worries or immediately increase formula stock.

“Joe Biden has NO PLAN,” Representative Elise Stefanik tweeted after Thursday’s briefing, with a screenshot of the transcript. When asked by a reporter what desperate parents who can’t find formula should do, the White House press secretary, Jennifer Psaki, replied, “Call their doctor.”

Ms. Psaki announced the administration’s strategy after President Biden discussed the shortages with formula retailers and manufacturers earlier in the day. The proposals include “cutting red tape” to get formula to store shelves, cracking down on price gouging, allowing more flexibility on what brands WIC voucher recipients can purchase, and “increased imports” of formula from overseas. Ms. Psaki said the president spoke with Reckitt-Benckiser and Gerber about increasing production in the wake of Abbott’s February 17 formula recall, and with Target and Walmart about how to stock store shelves more quickly and efficiently.

“This is work that has been under way for months,” Ms. Psaki said.

Yet the formula crisis continues to worsen. Nationwide, 43 percent of baby formula was out of stock in the first week of May, up from 31 percent in early April, according to retail analytics firm Datasemby. In six states, the out-of-stock rate topped 50 percent.

Formula or breastmilk are the sole sources of nutrition for babies until they reach six months of age. Three-quarters of U.S. infants rely on baby formula, according to the CDC. A mother who isn’t breastfeeding can’t suddenly start to produce milk. Without formula, her infant will starve.

“This is a matter of life or death,” Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers said at a GOP press conference on the issue Thursday morning in front of the Capitol. “President Biden and the FDA must do more.”

Before Thursday’s briefing, the White House had offered no guidance on how it was addressing the crisis. The incoming press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, told reporters Wednesday that the shortages were “a top priority to the White House,” though she said she didn’t know who was leading the charge.

Republicans have seized on this issue. “In Joe Biden’s America, it seems like it’s easier to get a crack pipe in a government funded smoking kit than it is to find baby formula,” Representative Michael Waltz of Florida said during the GOP press conference.

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, also expressed urgency: “Right now the baby’s crying, the baby’s hungry, we need to address it.”

The House announced Wednesday that it will be holding hearings on the baby formula shortages May 25. For some, this is too late. “Parents and babies need action NOW, not in a couple of weeks,” Ms. Stefanik, who is leading GOP opposition on the issue, tweeted.

The FDA’s statements on the formula shortages have mainly focused on the February Abbott recall of all powdered formula from its Sturgis, Michigan, plant. “Our first and foremost priority is ensuring that any recalled product remains off the market,” the FDA wrote in a statement to the Sun. The FDA also said it is releasing some specialty formula products from the Abbott plant “to individuals needing urgent, life-sustaining supplies” because the benefit “to access these products may outweigh the potential risk of bacterial infection.” 

The recall, however, only exacerbated existing shortages due to supply chain issues and the tight labor market. In January, 23 percent of baby formula was already out of stock nationwide.

An economist at the Cato Institute, Scott Lincicome, said he believes the issue runs deeper, and that the recall and supply chain issues simply caused it to “boil over.” Mr. Lincicome cites onerous regulations on the import of European baby formula and the dairy lobby’s stronghold in negotiations of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement that led to restrictions on Canadian formula imports as reasons why the formula market is susceptible to crisis-level shortages. “U.S. policy has exacerbated the nation’s infant formula problem by depressing potential supply,” Lincicome writes.

Ms. Psaki mentioned increasing formula imports in Thursday’s briefing, and the FDA is expected to make an announcement on this in the coming days.

The Abbott recall also had an outsize impact on the market because the company holds the largest number of state contracts with the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, according to Mr. Lincicome. WIC provides vouchers for formula to low-income parents that account for about half of all U.S. formula sales. Restrictions on what formula brands parents using WIC can purchase perpetuates market dominance for a couple major manufacturers. When one of these — in this case Abbott — has a recall, this leads to major disruptions.

The Biden administration is now urging states to expand what products WIC recipients can purchase. Ms. Psaki said “hoarding” of formula by parents and those trying to make a profit is adding to the crisis. Retailers are now limiting the amount of formula parents can purchase.

Ms. Stefanik and a fellow House Republican, Ashley Hinson, sent a letter to the FDA commissioner, Robert Califf, asking for a timeline on when supplies are expected to return to normal levels. “Parents should never be in a position of not knowing where to procure formula for their babies. Frankly, these empty shelves are unacceptable,” Tuesday’s letter read.  

On Wednesday, 106 GOP lawmakers signed a letter to the White House and the FDA commissioner also seeking answers.

Ms. Psaki would not commit to a timeline for when the formula crisis will resolve. At the briefing she admitted that “more needs to be done” and said, “Our message to parents is: We hear you.”

Anxious parents will likely need more than that.

The New York Sun

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