The manufacturing plant that’s been front and center in the baby formula shortage stopped production due to flooding 11 days after reopening, creating another major hiccup in efforts to ensure families have access to needed supplies for their young children.
Meanwhile, as 44,000 pounds of specialty formula was winging toward America from Switzerland, Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee lambasted the Biden administration for its handling of the shortage, blame for which he laid at the government’s door both during his remarks to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing and on Twitter.
“Make no mistake, there is no natural baby food shortage,” Lee tweeted. “This was created by our government, and it’s isolated to our shores.” He also criticized White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who responded to a question about the shortage by saying she had no new information.
“I don't have anything new," is the @WhiteHouse response to the baby formula shortage.— Mike Lee (@SenMikeLee) June 16, 2022
Make no mistake, there is no natural baby food shortage. This was created by our government, and it's isolated to our shores.@POTUS, you should take a look at my FORMULA act. pic.twitter.com/pWAkMRWpvR
The baby formula shortage started with supply chain issues and supply shortages created by customers who were stockpiling formula. Then Abbott Nutrition recalled baby formula products from store shelves after four babies became ill and two died from a bacterial infection; they had each consumed Abbott formula. Tests never linked the bacteria strain to Abbott’s product, the manufacturer said.
But bacterial contamination and other concerns were found at the plant in Sturgis, Michigan, which is the largest formula manufacturing plant in the country. So also in February, the Food and Drug Administration shut it down to address problems.
The plant was allowed to reopen June 4 after meeting terms of a consent decree with the government agency, but bad weather this week created flooding and production came to a halt again.
According to The Associated Press, Abbott Nutrition expects production to be halted for several weeks while it cleans up from the water damage. But the company said it had produced enough EleCare specialty formula for children with allergies and digestive issues to meet demand until the plant is again operational.
Even before the flooding, experts were predicting it could be mid-July before the formula supply normalizes.
Flying in formula
The shortage has been “most dire for children with allergies, digestive problems and metabolic disorders who rely on specialty formulas,” AP reported, noting that the Sturgis factory is the only source of many of the specialty products, feeding about 5,000 U.S. babies, according to federal officials.
Abbott spokesman Jonathon Hamilton said Abbott had so far in June produced nearly 9 million pounds of formula, which is close to what it was producing just before the recall.
“He said much of that production was for Similac, and the figure doesn’t include anything from the Sturgis plant,” AP reported.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has used the Defense Production Act to divert materials to other infant formula manufacturers, which have also stepped up their production, often running factories around the clock.
And the government has been importing formula from suppliers in Europe. Thursday, 44,000 pounds of Nestle speciality formula was to arrive in Kentucky for distribution as part of the administration’s “Operation Fly Formula.” CNN reported that the shipment includes Nestle Health Science Alfamino and Alfamino Junior formulas.
“The supply will be available primarily through a distribution pipeline serving hospitals, home health companies, and WIC programs around the U.S.,” according to CNN.
Mike Lee’s bill
Lee also tweeted that “while the White House flips through notes, American moms and dads have been asking themselves how they are going to find formula to feed their babies each and every day.”
While the White House flips through notes, American moms and dads have been asking themselves how they are going to find formula to feed their babies each and every day. My FORMULA Act would help ease the baby formula crisis. We should pass it immediately. https://t.co/99LwV2r0CP— Mike Lee (@SenMikeLee) June 14, 2022
During a meeting of the Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust and Consumer Rights, Lee, who is the ranking Republican, discussed his proposed FORMULA Act. That’s an acronym for “Fixing Our Regulatory Mayhem Upsetting Little Americans.”
During the hearing, Lee quipped that that was one of his better bill titles. In a release about the proposal, he said the shortage highlights “systemic weaknesses in this vital supply chain.”
The bill would temporarily waive “protectionist trade barriers like tariffs and quotas on importation,” which he said raises the cost and lowers the available supply of formula. It also waives regulations that keep “safe” baby formulas from abroad off American store shelves. And the bill would let families in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program use the vouchers provided to buy any formula, rather than limiting them to brands that might not be available.
Each of the waivers would last for six months until the supply of infant formula would presumably be plentiful once again.
Lee’s office calls the limitations on formula brands “government pro-monopoly incentives through WIC contracts” and said they’ve done a lot of harm to the formula market over recent decades, That, too, was part of the subcommittee conversation Wednesday.