The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Babies aren’t talking points. Stop posturing and get them formula.

Grocery stores and retailers around the country, including this one in Salt Lake City, are limiting the amount of baby formula that customers can purchase. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
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I realize the answer is almost certainly “no.” But please, for a moment, could we refrain from using babies as political footballs?

The ongoing infant formula shortage is a real crisis for American families. Yet people on the right and left are already reducing it to a talking point.

“Seems like the Democrat’s plan to combat the baby formula shortage is a war with Russia and easy access to 40 week abortions,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted on Tuesday. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) slammed the Biden administration for focusing on the war in Ukraine and disinformation, before tweeting “Baby Lives Matter.” And Rep. Troy E. Nehls (R-Tex.) groused about reports that the Border Patrol was receiving shipments of formula to feed undocumented babies in the agency’s care, complaining: “Baby formula should go to Americans before illegals. This should not have to be said.”

On the left, the rhetorical move du jour for commentators, if not elected officials, has been to link the formula shortage to what appears to be the pending demise of Roe v. Wade. As Jimmy Kimmel put it in a late-night monologue, “There’s never been a better time for the Supreme Court to force women to have more kids.”

Liberals have argued for decades that conservatives are more concerned with bringing babies into the world than with what happens to those babies when they get here. A dearth of formula, the logic goes, is just one more indignity to add to the list of what conservatives are supposedly willing to expose parents and babies to by limiting access to abortion.

But all this rhetoric only underscores the extent to which our most vulnerable citizens are an afterthought in American politics: Sure, babies need formula, but it’s really Ukraine, or immigration, or Hunter Biden, or the Supreme Court that we should be talking about! Even worse, these pivots offer nothing to desperate families who need formula right now.

The cheap zingers also obscure that, for once, there is real bipartisan energy building to do the right thing for babies and their parents. Conservatives and liberals alike recognize that it’s going to take a combination of zealous regulation and a reinvigorated marketplace to make sure that, in the future, parents and babies aren’t left in the lurch.

Alyssa Rosenberg: The baby formula shortage is an outrage. A sane country would fix it.

In February, House Republican Conference chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) correctly identified that the sweep of a formula recall by Abbott Nutrition — whose products account for more than a third of the formula market — meant that children were being “put to bed hungry while parents attempt to identify alternative formulas that are often difficult to procure.” At the time, she argued that the response to reports of bacterial contamination of formula produced at Abbott’s Sturgis, Mich., plant suggested that the Food and Drug Administration was acting too slowly on food safety issues.

That proved to be a prescient concern. In April, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) revealed that a whistleblower had contacted the FDA with worries over conditions at the Sturgis plant, but that it took months for the agency to act on the allegations.

While Stefanik sometimes uses harsh language about the Biden administration’s approach to the formula crisis, she is asking the right questions rather than spinning the debate in other directions. The concerns she has identified about the FDA’s role — in keeping formula safe and available — aren’t partisan. Among others, Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.) share her alarm.

More recently, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) sent an urgent letter posing numerous questions to the FDA and to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and asking them to look into the concentration of the U.S. formula market, which is dominated by a handful of major companies.

The baby formula shortage is the latest blow to parents

Families who need formula immediately might not be comforted by the prospect of new manufacturers entering the industry years from now, or by the idea of creating more robust supply chains for ingredients and packaging. But that’s exactly the sort of redundancy the U.S. formula market needs, so future parents don’t find their babies’ fates dependent on a single company, or on a single factory.

Of late, conservatives have expressed more concern about the concentration of power in Big Tech than in other parts of the economy. But formula seems a worthy target for this sort of scrutiny — and liberals such as DeLauro agree.

Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) cut to the heart of the matter when she told Fox News: “I’ll work with anyone who will work with me” to end the baby formula shortage.

That’s the spirit. Now let’s see our politicians act on it. And let’s hope they remember: A Twitter quip may feel clever in the moment. But as an alternative to real change, “Let them eat takes” is awfully stupid.

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