May 20, 2022

Infant Formula

“President Joe Biden on Wednesday invoked the Defense Production Act to speed production of infant formula and authorized flights to import supply from overseas… The announcement comes two days after the Food and Drug Administration said it was streamlining its review process to make it easier for foreign manufacturers to begin shipping more formula into the U.S…

“The White House actions come as the Democratic-led House approved two bills Wednesday addressing the baby formula shortage as lawmakers look to show progress on what has become a frightening development for many families. One bill with wide bipartisan support passed by a vote of 414-9. It would give the secretary of the Agriculture Department the ability to issue a narrow set of waivers in the event of a supply disruption. The goal is to give participants in an assistance program commonly known as WIC the ability to use vouchers to purchase formula from any producer rather than be limited to one brand that may be unavailable… The other measure, a $28 million emergency spending bill to boost resources at the Food and Drug Administration, passed by a mostly party-line vote.” AP News

Here’s our recent coverage of the infant formula shortage. The Flip Side

Many on both sides criticize the FDA’s response to the crisis:

“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 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… In the 21st century, the United States should be capable of feeding the smallest and most helpless among us.”
Editorial Board, Washington Post

“European baby formula didn’t become less hazardous, in the FDA’s estimation, instantaneously. The formula bottleneck of production in the U.S., which has long served to protect America’s dairy industry from foreign competition, didn’t become unsustainable due to commercial pressures. Americans benefiting from federal assistance may no longer have to navigate their specific state’s labyrinthine manufacturing contracts just to change formula brands, but that happy outcome is not because Congress encountered a rare bout of sanity…

The urgency of America’s needs became too great to preserve the unnecessary regulations that imposed artificial limits on U.S. supply. But consumers had experienced and resented those limits for months. They became intolerable when, as the Washington Post conceded, the formula shortage ‘turned political.’”
Noah Rothman, Commentary

“For decades, American parents have bought baby formula from Europe and other developed countries for a number of reasons, including because foreign formulas are more natural and more nutritious than the highly synthetic domestic brands. The FDA, however, has recently clamped down on this illicit trade in baby formula, even creating a ‘red list’ of brands for U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to block in international trade…

“It is not that the FDA has studied these formulas and determined that they are a danger to infants — quite the opposite. These are European Medicines Agency-inspected and approved brands that feed millions of babies in Europe. The problem the FDA has with foreign formula is the labeling. Many of the brands do not have English labels, and even when they do, they do not always list the exact nutrients that are required by FDA regulations. Whatever sense these government regulations may have in regular times, they don’t make any sense in a time of domestic scarcity.”
Editorial Board, Washington Examiner

American parents’ current plight could have been mitigated or prevented in many different ways. A host of federal policy changes could decrease demand for formula or ameliorate the market’s brittleness: Guaranteed paid parental leave—something all other rich countries provide—would make it possible for more mothers to breastfeed exclusively, if they’re so inclined. Universal prenatal care would better prepare low-income mothers to solve common problems that preclude breastfeeding…

“Regulators could crack down on formula marketers, who have a long history of employing tactics that a United Nations report recently described as ‘pervasive, misleading, and aggressive’—and of using these tactics to pursue low-income Black moms in particular. The federal government could take a more active role in ensuring that reserves of vital goods are always available, or require manufacturers that win public contracts to guarantee certain types of redundancy in their supply chains. And reforming WIC contracts to allow multiple manufacturers to supply rebated formula within a state would encourage a healthier, more stable nutritional-formula industry.”
Amanda Mull, The Atlantic

Other opinions below.

See past issues

From the Left

“All Democrats present voted for [the FDA funding bill], while 192 Republicans voted no… Republicans and their media sources have been unrestrained in attacking President Biden for the formula shortage. They’ve blamed everything from Biden’s alleged ‘radical agenda’ to the fact that the administration feeds detained migrant babies. Since then, some Republicans have even called the $28 million bill ‘reckless spending.’ That’s laughable; you could find that much in the couch cushions in the defense secretary’s office…

“If Democrats were sufficiently aggressive, they could use this as a case study in Republican recklessness. Imagine Democratic ads bludgeoning Republicans over that opposition vote: a montage of sad babies as the voice-over says, ‘Congressman Scrooge voted against baby formula. Against baby formula? What kind of monster is Congressman Scrooge?’ That’s certainly what would happen if the situation were reversed.”

Paul Waldman, Washington Post

From the Right

“The Biden administration’s initial response to the baby formula shortage was so toothless and late in coming that even CNN was forced to admit that it was basically useless. That reality seems to have finally sunk in at the White House this week and last night the President invoked the Defense Production Act to get producers more quickly back up to full speed. He also authorized an airlift operation to bring more formula into the country from abroad. Will that be enough? It will eventually, so be sure, but doing so back in February (if not even sooner) would have avoided this crisis entirely

“Even if he wasn’t paying that much attention to the supply chain issues involved with this shortage, surely someone on Biden’s team has pointed out the horrible political optics being generated by these headlines. If there is a worse group of people in the United States to tick off during an election season than young mothers with infant children, I’m hard-pressed to think of one.”

Jazz Shaw, Hot Air

A libertarian's take

“On Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced plans to send military aircraft to Europe—’Operation Fly Formula,’ as the White House is calling it—to bring back formula for American parents. ‘I've directed the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services to send aircraft, planes, overseas to pick up infant formula that meets U.S. health and safety standards so we can get it on a store shelves faster,’ Biden said Wednesday. This is ridiculous on its face. For starters, there's already a massive private industry dedicated to moving products from one part of the world to another. The baby formula shortage isn't the result of there not being enough planes to transport baby formula from Europe to the U.S…

“Markets—ones that are actually free, not those calcified by decades of debilitating protectionism—can read and react to changing conditions with far greater speed. It's impossible to prove what would have happened in a world where imported baby formula can flow freely into the United States, but it's a good bet that the Abbott plant's temporary shutdown would have been much less disruptive if importers could have immediately responded to the impending shortage by placing orders for greater supplies of European-made baby formula during March and April. If you let markets work, there would be no need for a performative baby formula airlift orchestrated by the White House.”
Eric Boehm, Reason

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