Opinion The baby formula crisis wasn’t a complete disaster. Here’s why.

(Washington Post staff illustration; images by Getty Images)

Mate a dark comedy about government with a bleak horror movie about the American social safety net and you might get something resembling the U.S. baby formula shortage. The saga features a whistleblower’s report lost in a federal mailroom; decrepit conditions at a factory that was supposed to be making life-sustaining food; and worried, exhausted parents struggling to care for sick, hungry babies.

Yet viewed through a certain lens, the shortage has not been a complete disaster: It has also prompted businesses, private organizations and government to step up in ways that ought to be heartening to both corporate skeptics and small-government conservatives. These institutions’ decisions in the face of crisis reflect creativity and state capacity that isn’t always evident in the public sphere — and raise questions about why such thinking, quick action and collaborative spirit aren’t employed more often.

Take the way the U.S. Agriculture Department stepped up to help participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Those families were particularly vulnerable to the shortage because of long-standing norms in government contracting, which plays a significant role in shaping the national formula market. Under the program, each state signs a contract with a manufacturer and then allows WIC recipients to buy powdered formula in specific quantities from that company.

Those contracts save states an eye-popping amount of money — in some cases, hundreds of millions — allowing them to stretch WIC dollars further. But they have also fueled tremendous concentration in the formula industry.

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

Abbott Nutrition, the operator of the Sturgis, Mich., plant at the center of the shortage, supplies WIC contracts for 34 states and D.C. As a result, when formula from that plant was recalled and the factory shut down, WIC families limited to buying Abbott formula were even more out of luck than people who simply preferred the company’s brands.

Follow Alyssa Rosenberg's opinionsFollow

In a heartening move, the USDA moved quickly to implement (and later to extend) flexibilities in the WIC program so recipients wouldn’t be trapped by the terms of their benefits. And in states where Abbott holds WIC contracts, the company is covering the difference between the cost of its products and alternatives until Nov. 30 so parents can keep feeding their babies.

In states supplied by other companies, the USDA itself is covering the cost differences between government-negotiated prices and those for other formulas, recognizing that as families try different brands, their purchases put pressure on the supply of formula available to WIC families, too.

The USDA is hardly the only government agency to have acted — and in ways that illustrate the complexities of both the formula product itself and the regulatory environment in which it is produced and sold.

The Biden administration invoked the Defense Production Act to give formula makers priority access to ingredients such as corn syrup, as well as filters and packaging materials, so they could step up production.

Anticipating a potentially severe storm season, the Federal Emergency Management Agency bought an extra 10,000 pounds of formula and distributed it to hubs around the country for quick delivery to disaster zones. And administration staffers called the hotlines set up by formula companies to test whether parents would get real assistance finding formula if they were to reach out for help.

Though the United States has been a notoriously difficult market for formula makers to enter, given differences in national and regional food standards, the Food and Drug Administration used discretionary authority to allow new brands of formula from Australia, the European Union and Mexico onto U.S. shelves. The administration even air-freighted formula into the country through an effort it called Operation Fly Formula.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox Union, which provides kosher certification to manufacturers, signed off on the overseas plants so Jewish families could be confident they were feeding babies food produced in accordance with the dictates of their faith.

Companies including Reckitt, which manufactures the popular Enfamil line of formulas, also took creative approaches to manufacturing and shipping. Robert Cleveland, Reckitt’s senior vice president for North America and Europe nutrition, said in June that the company was prioritizing the products it could produce the fastest, and that it had worked with its retail partners to make sure formula trucks got priority in the unloading process.

That’s the kind of tiny logistical detail that gets overlooked in public policy debates. But for families hitting up Target or Walmart in search of formula, a promptly unloaded truck can be the difference between relief and a demoralizing trek to yet another store in search of food for a hungry baby.

Press Enter to skip to end of carousel
Opinions coverage of the baby formula crisis
In February, Abbott Nutrition issued a major recall of baby formula, leading to a shortage that escalated to crisis levels and left caregivers desperate and babies hungry.
“The baby formula shortage is an outrage,” columnist Alyssa Rosenberg wrote in May, calling for the federal government to step in.
Columnist Marc A. Thiessen disagreed, blaming too much government regulation for the shortage.
The Editorial Board called the shortage a national emergency and pressed for the government allow more imports from abroad.
There was bipartisan outrage over the shortage but little bipartisan action. Rosenberg criticized commentators and politicians on the left and right who reduced the crisis to a talking point.
Particularly reprehensible, Rosenberg argued: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s suggestion that formula be taken from migrant babies being held in federal detention and then given to American children.
The formula crisis was devastating for mothers, who were forced to make difficult decisions over how to feed their children. But the shortage also affected men, Rosenberg reminded us in May. “Feeding a baby is a family responsibility,” she wrote. “The men who are speaking out about formula have demonstrated that.”
Rosenberg joined Dr. Leana S. Wen in an online Q&A to answer questions about the formula shortage, such as whether it’s safe to use homemade formula or share breast milk.
One common question was why more women didn’t just breastfeed. Rosenberg tackled this in a visual column, using her own breastfeeding data to lay out the enormous financial and labor costs of nursing and pumping.
In February, Abbott Nutrition temporarily shuttered its Sturgis, Mich., facility after the Food and Drug Administration discovered bacteria in the plant. “I have high expectations of this company, and we fell short of them,” the company’s CEO, Robert Ford, wrote in May in an op-ed for The Post.
The baby formula supply has improved, but key problems remain: Just three companies dominate the nation’s market, strict import controls make it hard for the United States to get supplies from abroad, and there are gaps in the FDA’s food oversight process, the Editorial Board wrote.
Parents, especially those on public assistance, are still under immense strain, and barriers remain for families seeking help, Rosenberg writes.
But the shortage has not been a complete disaster, Rosenberg writes. It “prompted businesses, private organizations and government to step up in ways that ought to be heartening to both corporate skeptics and small-government conservatives.”


End of carousel

All these efforts have helped to ease the shortage, but not to end it. Some of the delay is due to simple bad luck — and tough decisions.

First, Abbott’s efforts to reopen the Sturgis plant were delayed by a major storm.

Then, when the factory resumed production, on July 1, Abbott prioritized the specialty formulas that are a critical source of food for infants with allergies and complex metabolic conditions. That was the right decision. If the only thing a child can eat is a specialty formula produced by a single company at a single plant, then of course that food should take precedence.

Still, that order of operations meant that Abbott didn’t begin producing its flagship Similac line at the Sturgis plant until Aug. 26, a full six months after the factory was shuttered. From there, it takes an additional six to eight weeks for new cans of formula to start their journey to stores.

Alyssa Rosenberg: Babies aren’t talking points. Stop posturing and get them formula.

Untangling the factors that produced this disaster won’t be easy. But it is essential. Lawmakers and businesses should move forward thinking first and foremost of the families who have paid the price — in anxiety, in time and effort, in babies’ health and lives — for the failures of policy and commerce that led us here.

Companies and the government proved earlier this year that they can act to protect our most vulnerable citizens. The key is to keep working, even when the acute phase of a crisis ebbs and the long haul begins.

This is the second of three columns exploring the nation’s response to the baby formula shortage. Up next: How to ensure a crisis like this doesn’t happen again.