Terry H. Schwadron

May 16, 2022

Count me as officially confused about the response to the nationwide infant formula shortage.

It seems there is wide agreement on the need and that there are regional shortages, the result of fouled supply chains that have occasionally plagued other consumer products. And there is agreement that the national supply of formula followed shutdown of an Abbott Nutrition plant in Michigan in February over safety issues – the kind of thing we want to applaud government for forcing, and the Food and Drug administration has been working with the company on its needed improvements.

Last Thursday, the Biden administration announced steps to address the shortage. Joe Biden reported talking with the three main suppliers about speeding their manufacturing process, promised to crack down on price gouging and to increase imports to make up for lagging U.S. supply. Biden also told the Federal Trade Commission to address “any illegal conduct” that might be worsening the shortage, driving hoarding, and to assure that rural areas are not at a disadvantage in a tightened market.

OK, getting to this point took a few weeks longer than it might have, but isn’t this a sign of government doing something rather than sticking its bureaucratic head in the sand?

Instead, we’ve been pummeled with partisan reports about how pallets of infant formula, clearly ordered weeks or months ago, got delivered to the border.

In conservative, anti-Biden speak, this was putting immigrants’ needs before those of American citizen consumers, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott even suggesting that those deliveries be seized in violation of U.S. law. Rep. Elise Stefanik, (R-NY) was still charging on Friday that Biden lacks a plan to end the nationwide baby formula shortage anytime soon.

Isn’t this what businesses are supposed to plan for? What puts this at the head of the government agenda?

No Timeline

Of course, as with any plan, it’s going to still take time to get the trucks headed in the right direction. But this time, we have an American-made product that is simultaneously needed and wanted in all parts of the country.

There are a few workarounds being recommended by medical authorities, including the use of soy-based milk products.

There is no timeline for immediate resolution.

But among Republicans, this shortage illustrates a problematic Biden administration, not the concentration of an industry in three or four companies that control an industry – and one that has run afoul of health and safety laws. What we should be hearing about is better enforcement and expansion of an American industry that apparently has a ready market – not about blame for Biden.

What makes the criticism more acute is that it is coming from the same Republicans who want to eliminate abortion and force more children, even to those who may be ill-equipped or burdened to raise them, the same Republicans who resist government help for childcare or early education, the same Republicans who now seemingly want us to cancel infant formula deliveries to migrant children forced to remain in detention centers.

In February, Abbott recalled several products after FDA inspectors launched an investigation into complaints that four infants were hospitalized with rare bacteria after consuming formula produced at the plant. Two infants died.

Republicans, including Stefanik, mother of a nine-month-old on formula herself, said the Biden administration has been dragging its heels in recognizing a consumer problem.  Actually, retail formula supplies have been relatively short since last summer, but the problem appears to have worsened in recent weeks and become the stuff of headlines.

Let’s assume Stefanik is right. The point is, that whether because of her or despite her, she has been successful in getting the administration to act.

But somehow, Republican lawmakers have sought to turn the issue into a political weapon against Biden, thus demoting what seems an emotional and persuasive public shortage issue into yet another piece of political theater.

The Political Weapon, Again

Recognizing a political issue, Democrats are getting into the act. House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) wants Biden to invoke the Defense Production Act, to force increased production in the name of national security. Two committees controlled by Democrats have called for hearings on May 25.

Biden did not mention the Defense Production Act in taking his actions, choosing to speak to the small number of companies that produce the formula in the United States. U.S. companies produce 98 percent of the infant formula that is consumed here with some imports from Mexico, Chile, Ireland and the Netherlands.

For years, experts have been warning that industry consolidation has left the production of formula — a highly regulated product that is notoriously difficult to manufacture — in the hands of a small number of makers vulnerable to this sort of disruption, reported The Washington Post.

Whatever the emotional impact of empty store shelves, the availability of infant formula varies by region. An analysis by Datasembly, which tracks retail sales, last week found that over two weeks, the out-of-stock percentage for baby formula nationwide increased from 31 to 40 percent. Some states saw out-of-stock rates that exceeded 50 percent. Another survey found that the average in-stock rate is currently about 79 percent across the U.S. — far below the pre-pandemic norms of 95 percent, but not critically low —  none of which helps if the shortage is at your local stores.

What is critically high, however, is politics.

The combination of a shortage of a product needed by infants, forced drives to find substitute markets, and the apparently offensive image of detained migrant families having access to some pre-ordered supplies is driving the political wedge anew.

The issue not addressed: A U.S. industry that seems unresponsive to its market and its safety requirements.

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