A persistent national shortage of baby formula left members of Congress scrambling for solutions Tuesday, as Democrats readied $28 million in aid as part of a broader policy push to restock depleted store shelves.
The new emergency spending measure seeks to pump more funds into the Food and Drug Administration, a move that Democrats said would ease the supply crunch while safeguarding against future disruptions. House leaders set in motion a plan to adopt the bill this week, at which point they hope to finalize a separate yet related effort to assist low-income families.
Addressing the potential crisis at a news conference Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other top Democrats promised a battery of additional actions on the horizon — including hearings to question top executives in the formula industry and fresh scrutiny targeting the FDA.
“Parents are struggling. People today live paycheck to paycheck. They’re now scrambling to find formulas for their babies,” warned Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), the chair of the House Appropriations Committee and chief author of the proposal.
But it remained unclear whether the new money — largely earmarked for more federal inspections — might provide immediate relief to families running out of formula nationwide. Much of the shortage stems from the shutdown of a major production facility in Sturgis, Mich., resulting from concerns about unsanitary conditions and four infants becoming sick or dying after consuming the company’s formula. The process to restart its operations is likely to take weeks.
Less certain still was the political fate of Democrats’ latest legislative gambit, as Republicans signaled early opposition to the spending measure, potentially dooming its prospects in the narrowly divided Senate. A senior aide to the chamber’s GOP leaders, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the party’s thinking, said there is a reluctance to support any new federal spending. Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers continued to hammer the White House publicly for failing to anticipate the shortage.
“Who would have ever thought we would have a shortage of baby formula right here in the United States?” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said at a news conference Tuesday. “These were things that could have been foreseen, things the Biden administration could have planned for.”
The tensions played out in front of the House Rules Committee as it convened Tuesday afternoon to set the parameters for debate on the bill. While DeLauro highlighted “corporate greed” and a “disgraceful lack of oversight” as root causes of the formula crisis, her Republican counterparts blasted Democrats for mounting an ineffective policy response.
“Unfortunately, the bill the majority is now producing will do nothing to address this crisis, and will do nothing to provide support for parents and get them the formula their babies need,” said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), the top Republican on the panel, before adding that the bill is an attempt by Democrats to “look like they were doing something about this crisis without doing anything.”
For all their divisions, Democrats and Republicans at least found themselves united in bipartisan frustration, having now heard an earful from voters back home. Lawmakers on Tuesday swapped yet another round of stories about parents driving miles to scour stores for formula, only to find nothing for sale. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said he visited a local grocer and was “amazed at the bareness of the shelves.”
In Memphis, meanwhile, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital admitted a toddler and a preschooler in cases “directly related to the formula shortage,” said Mark Corkins, a pediatric gastroenterologist there. One has since been discharged. These children have special dietary needs and their parents were unable to find appropriate formula for them, Corkins said.
The shortage has prompted intervention from the Biden administration, including an announcement Monday that the FDA had reached an agreement with Abbott Nutrition, the owner of the shuttered Sturgis factory, to restart its operations. The company has previously said it would take two weeks after FDA approval to resume its production of Similac and other popular baby formulas, and an additional six to eight weeks to get it to stores nationally.
The FDA also has been in discussions with other infant formula manufacturers, who are reporting that they are all producing at an expanded capacity. Gerber said it increased the amount of its infant formula available to consumers by approximately 50 percent in March and April, for example, and Reckitt is supplying over 30 percent more product year to date. Early indicators from the data firm IRI show recent improvements: In the week that ended May 6, the most recent data available, the average grocery store nationwide was back at 79 percent stocked, although experts say there is significant regional difference. That is up from 57 percent stocked, a record low, at the beginning of the month.
Top White House officials in recent days have signaled they could soon take additional action, including the invocation of the Defense Production Act. The federal law essentially grants President Biden the power to order domestic manufacturers to ramp up production, a tool the federal government previously put to use to secure supplies in response to the coronavirus. Lawmakers from both parties have supported the move, though Pelosi expressed concern this weekend that Biden may not have the authority to use the law in the context of baby formula.
Even so, such a presidential directive could take time to implement, especially given the complicated manufacturing process necessary to produce nutrient-rich formula. And its consideration has done nothing to quell the widespread anger that the White House should have acted more aggressively, and sooner, to prevent a supply crunch — especially amid reports that a whistleblower had previously raised alarms about the Sturgis plant.
For now, congressional Democrats are still racing to cobble together their own set of legislative responses. To start, the House is expected to take up a bill Thursday that could make it easier for Americans participating in a low-income program known as WIC to access more sources for formula. The move will allow the Women, Infants and Children program, which is managed by the Agriculture Department, to begin purchasing formula from more foreign sources.
With it, Democrats aim to advance their measure injecting $28 million in new funds at the FDA. The money, in DeLauro’s estimation, would “strengthen the workforce focused on formula issues and increase FDA inspection staff,” all the while ensuring that fraudulent, dangerous products do not enter the U.S. market.
Touting the measure, DeLauro on Tuesday intensified her attacks on Abbott, arguing at a House hearing that the mishaps at the Sturgis plant are evidence of its strategy “putting production and profits before people.” And she slammed the FDA for having “dragged their feet” dating back to last year on the known abuses at the Abbott-run facility.
“Our work here is not done,” DeLauro pledged.
Hours later, DeLauro joined Pelosi, Hoyer and other Democratic leaders to detail some of their future priorities, including a new investigation they had secured from a key federal inspector general. Speaking at the new conference, they trained their ire at Abbott and the baby formula industry broadly. At one point, Pelosi herself predicted the sum of the government’s investigatory efforts could unearth significant wrongdoing in the months to come.
“I think there might be a need for indictment,” Pelosi said.
Still other Democrats said they would explore legislation to require “authorities” at the FDA to monitor manufacturers for potential shortages before they occur. “Right now, we don’t really have an immediate or quick way of finding out whether there is a shortage,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, adding that they are eyeing “legislation that says they have to notify us.”
For now, Republicans signaled they are disinclined to lend their support for new money for the FDA. Even as they acknowledge the impact of the shortage — on top of a broader spike in consumer prices across the economy — party lawmakers said they find the money unnecessary given the FDA’s part failures.
Rep. Kay Granger (Tex.), the top GOP lawmaker on the House Appropriations Committee, said that lawmakers already had increased the agency’s budget and that the bill fell short in making more-specific requirements of the Biden administration.
“What is most concerning,” she said, “is this bill won’t fix the problem.”