Editorials, Opinion

Good news, bad news for formula shortage

For worried parents nationwide, there is good news and bad news on the baby formula front. First, the good news:

Last week was a whirlwind as Washington, D.C., finally threw its weight behind solving the infant formula crisis. President Biden used the Defense Production Act to incentivize suppliers of key formula ingredients to sell to formula manufacturers. Production has also ramped up, and restrictions on imports have been temporarily relaxed. Biden even enlisted military planes to transport formula made abroad.

The Food and Drug Administration also reached a deal with Abbott Laboratories to reopen its Michigan plant. In February, the FDA launched an investigation into the Abbott facility after four infants became ill after consuming formula produced there. The plant was closed after an inspection found traces of a bacteria that can cause severe illness in babies.  Abbott insists the illnesses are not linked to its formula.

As it currently stands, Abbott is on track to have the plant up and running in the next couple weeks, and products should hit shelves within the next couple months. In the meantime, increased production from other manufacturers and increased imports should alleviate some of the immediate strain.

The bad news: While it was a perfect storm of factors that caused the baby formula crisis, it’s extremely possible — even likely — that this can happen again if we don’t fix the underlying problems.

The market for baby formula is cornered by four companies — Abbott, Nestle/Gerber, Mead Johnson/Reckitt and Perrigo — that produce 90% of the formula sold in the U.S. (imports account for 2%). Abbott, Nestle and Mead Johnson are the only companies with WIC contracts. When Abbott’s Michigan facility closed down, supply plummeted and couldn’t keep up with the demand from a recent uptick in births.

But that’s what happens when monopolies seize control of the market. Abbott alone provides an outsized share of formula, so when one of its facilities went down, it created a gaping hole in the supply chain. And because of the shortage, the company is unlikely to face major backlash for putting infants’ health at risk, because the nation is desperate for the product that only it and a few others can provide.

The other problem has been the systematic dismantling and undermining of regulatory bodies like the FDA.

Frankly, the FDA dropped the ball when it comes to the Abbott Michigan plant. But it’s hard to blame the FDA for failing when laissez faire congresses have stripped federal agencies of funding, increasingly conservative courts have stripped them of power and certain recent presidents staffed them with big-wigs from the very industries they are meant to regulate.

Increasing production and flying in formula is a short-term solution for the immediate crisis. But if we want to prevent this from happening again, the federal government needs to find Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick and start busting these monopolies, and it needs to reassert — and empower — the FDA’s mission to protect consumers.