It’s hard to imagine the United States would be in a situation where the most basic of foodstuff is not available for babies, but that’s exactly where we are in 2022. The baby formula shortage is a national emergency, and the White House and congressional leaders should have been prepared for it months ago.
How the nation ended up in this mess is telling. This is a uniquely American crisis. Our neighbors in Canada and Mexico still have plenty of baby formula on their shelves. What’s different in this country is that the United States relies primarily on three companies — Abbott, Gerber and Reckitt — to supply the vast majority of baby formula for the nation. This has become a highly concentrated market, and imports of baby formula are almost nonexistent. Abbott had to shut down a big formula factory in February after several babies became sick and two died from a rare infection. We still lack clear answers about what happened. But it could have been predicted that, with a major supplier impaired, a baby formula shortage would turn into a red-siren emergency.
The simple solution, from the outset, would have been to import more formula from abroad, from places such as the European Union, Britain, Canada, Australia and Japan. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Monday that it was streamlining its review process so that foreign manufacturers could begin shipping more formula into the United States. That should have happened weeks ago. The FDA also reached a deal with Abbott on how to reopen the shuttered factory in Michigan.
The situation is still dire. Supplies of formula have been 40 percent out of stock, and it could take two months before it is widely available again. On Wednesday, the White House took the much-needed steps of announcing “Operation Fly Formula” to speed up foreign formula imports by using Defense Department air cargo contacts and invoking the Defense Production Act to speed delivery of ingredients to domestic formula producers.
As with most crises, the families that are the hardest hit are low-income households that can’t afford to pay high prices or drive around to multiple stores and families that have children with special medical conditions. At a minimum, states should work with manufacturers to suspend requirements forcing moms on the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program to buy only specified formulas with government vouchers.
Disappointingly — albeit predictably — demagogues have been feasting on the fears of babies going hungry. Republican lawmakers and their backup choir on right-wing media have been stoking outrage with false claims blaming the shortage on stocks being set aside for the babies of undocumented immigrants. And there are some who are trying to shame mothers who don’t breastfeed.
The nation needs a full and rational accounting of this mess and the troubling questions about why it took so long for the FDA to look into the Abbott plant after a whistleblower came forward in October. Longer-term, we should open the U.S. market up to more imports from abroad. The trade deal the Trump administration struck with Canada and Mexico that made it even harder to import formula from Canada has had unintended consequences. In the 21st century, the United States should be capable of feeding the smallest and most helpless among us.