The Washington Post

Congress still needs to prevent the next shortage of baby formula

- Alyssa Rosenberg

Many of the babies who wanted for infant formula during the U.S. shortage in 2022 have moved on to solid foods. But a year on from the events that left shelves empty for months, the possibilit­y of a repeat disaster remains.

Last year, hundreds of members of Congress rushed to address the most immediate impacts of the shortage — and to advance short-term fixes. But lawmakers have yet to tackle the issues that matter most: the extreme concentrat­ion of the formula market, and regulators’ inability to safeguard the U.S. formula supply. There’s no excuse for delay — especially because conversati­ons with 106 lawmakers suggest bipartisan agreement on both the source of the danger and the broad outlines of potential solutions.

I reached out to the 292 members of Congress who put their names to formula bills last year to see whether they remained committed to preventing future supply shocks; 79 Democrats, 26 Republican­s and one Independen­t responded.

The weaknesses in the system that caused the shortage remain “a national security issue,” wrote Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-ariz.). “Raising a child in America should never mean struggling to find — or afford — critical formula essential to helping your child grow, thrive, and stay healthy,” wrote Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D- Conn.). Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), the House Republican Conference chairwoman, wrote: “As a new mom, I know there is nothing more important than being able to feed your child.”

Most of those who responded called out the dangers of market concentrat­ion. Just four companies produce 90 percent of powdered formula American parents feed their babies each year, so shutting down one plant could still eliminate 20 percent of U. S. supply. That’s what happened last year when a product recall and an extended manufactur­ing pause cut off the flow of formula from Abbott Laboratori­es, a facility in Sturgis, Mich.

The Food and Drug Administra­tion called for the stoppage amid reports that a number of babies had died after drinking formula made in the plant. An inspection uncovered allegedly unsanitary conditions; bacteria found in environmen­tal samples was not conclusive­ly linked to the strains that killed the children. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission are now investigat­ing Abbott’s power in the market.

But a resilient marketplac­e requires more competitor­s, not just a crackdown on incumbent firms.

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA.) cited the possibilit­y of “grants and loans to finance capital investment­s, opening up government contracts to smaller manufactur­ers, and continuing to provide consistent federal regulation­s.”

Rep. Darren Soto (D-fla.) suggested that he and Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R- Ga.) might include infant formula in a new version of their Made in America Act. Rep. Rosa L. Delauro (D- Conn.), one of the most persistent voices on the formula crisis, told me that she and Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-PA.) are readying a bill intended to “give smaller manufactur­ers of infant formula a leg up in the market.”

And while the domestic sector plays catch-up, the United States should scrap high tariffs on foreign formula manufactur­ers that entered the market during the shortage.

Three members of the House Ways and Means Committee — Republican­s Adrian Smith of Nebraska and Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, and Democrat Judy Chu of California — told me that they want to, as Chu put it, “ensure that our trade laws help alleviate critical shortages rather than contribute to them.”

Availabili­ty is only half the challenge. Parents need to trust that the food they feed their infants is safe. Last year’s shortage highlighte­d cracks in the systems providing those assurances.

Lawmakers of both parties — 48 of them — told me they want to see improvemen­ts at the FDA. The Sturgis plant might have come under scrutiny sooner, agency officials said last year, if not for a “failure in FDA’S mailroom” that misdirecte­d a whistleblo­wer’s report, and miscommuni­cations among key officials.

Some changes are underway. Last year’s omnibus funding bill included new requiremen­ts for the FDA and formula manufactur­ers to file quick reports with Congress on any recalls, manufactur­ing disruption­s or product discontinu­ations that could upend the formula supply again. And the FDA has created a new senior position, the deputy commission­er for human foods, in January, to reemphasiz­e its food safety mission.

And several lawmakers pledged to hold hearings to ensure that the FDA increases the cadence of inspection­s and implements new tools to track shortages. Among them is the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee oversight subcommitt­ee, Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-VA.).

The lawmakers who responded to this survey sent dozens of more ambitious — and worthy — proposals. Their goals are as lofty as making it much easier for American mothers to breastfeed their infants in line with internatio­nal recommenda­tions and as granular as shutting down the bots that bought up formula from online retailers at the height of the crisis.

Before taking on these issues, Congress should give the infants who experience­d the formula shortage and their beleaguere­d parents an overdue birthday present: reforms that will save American families from the fear their children could go hungry again.

Availabili­ty is only half the challenge. Parents need to trust that the food they feed their infants is safe.

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