The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What 106 lawmakers say about preventing another formula shortage

A grocery store shelf in Salt Lake City in May 2022 during a nationwide shortage of infant formula. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
5 min

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.

Q&A with FDA Commissioner Robert Califf on baby formula, food safety

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.

Skip to end of carousel
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

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.”

Alyssa Rosenberg: The baby formula crisis wasn’t a complete disaster. Here’s why.

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.

Alyssa Rosenberg: Breastfeeding isn’t ‘free.’ Here’s what it cost me.

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.