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Federal money to help fix baby formula shortage? Utah GOP congressmen say no

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Cyndle Bass feeds 5-month-old Austin formula at their Eagle Mountain home on Wednesday, May 11, 2022.

Cyndle Bass feeds 5-month-old Austin formula at their Eagle Mountain home on Wednesday, May 11, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

While criticizing the Biden administration for not doing enough to deal with the nationwide baby formula shortage, all four of Utah’s Republican congressmen voted against providing $28 million to the Food and Drug Administration to address the issue.

Reps. John Curtis, Blake Moore, Burgess Owens and Chris Stewart were among the 192 GOP House members who opposed the measure Wednesday, which passed with 231 votes largely along party lines. Twelve Republicans broke ranks and joined with Democrats supporting the bill.

House Republicans argued providing money to the FDA is unnecessary and that it would do little to get at the root of the problem.

“Last night’s vote fed straight into the majority’s solution to every issue facing Americans: See how much money we can borrow and spend and print,” Owens said.

Instead of solving the crisis, he said, the bill spends $28 million on salaries for FDA employees. “That’s it,” Owens said.

Moore said he voted against the bill because it is ineffective and would not make infant formula more available to families, according to his office.

“Even Democrats expressed frustration with their leadership for putting this bill on the floor,” he said. “More bureaucracy is not the solution; bureaucracy around imports, labeling, and state formula contracts is in fact a key cause of the shortage.”

Moore said he and his wife are in the thick of the shortage and he’s doing all he can to find real solutions and accountability.

Stewart said in a tweet that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., shut Republicans out of good-faith negotiations to solve the baby formula crisis. He said the bill doesn’t force the FDA to develop a plan, account for excess stocks or leverage existing transportation capabilities.

Curtis said he opposed the bill because not only is funding not an issue for the FDA, but it also distracts Congress from working on real solutions. Just two months ago, he said, the FDA received a $102 million budget increase, including $11 million specifically for maternal and infant health and nutrition.

“FDA is sitting on a surplus of funds, and throwing money at a federal agency won’t fix a supply chain problem in large part created by the FDA itself. We now know the FDA was aware of this issue when it began but did not take the steps to prevent the shortage,’ Curtis said. “Instead, we need to work in a bipartisan fashion to find solutions that gets more formula on the shelves and prevent a situation like this from happening again.”

While opposing more federal spending, Utah’s congressmen have proposed their own legislation to combat the shortage of baby formula.

Stewart and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, proposed the Fixing Our Regulatory Mayhem Upsetting Little Americans or FORMULA Act, which targets supply chain disruption by temporarily waiving current trade barriers like tariffs and quotas on importation that reduce the supply and increase the price of available foreign-made formula. The bill would waive regulations that prevent the importation of safe baby formula from abroad. 

The measure also lets Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC program recipients use vouchers to purchase formula from any producer rather than be limited to the brand or product listed on specific vouchers, which may be unavailable.

Owens signed on to the bipartisan Access to Baby Act, which would require manufacturers to submit a plan with their bids for contracts covering how they would address an emergency or disruption without impacting WIC recipients. It also allows the agriculture secretary to issue waivers in the event of an emergency to help formula get back on the shelves quickly.

Moore also supports the bill.

The shortage has been blamed on ongoing supply chain disruptions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and manufacturer Abbott issuing a recall for products made at a Michigan plant and sold under the Similac, Alimentum and EleCare labels. Four children — one in Minnesota, one in Texas and two in Ohio — fell ill with bacterial infections after being fed the products, and two died, according to The Washington Post.

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to bolster production of infant formula and restock store shelves. Under the act, suppliers are being ordered to “ensure that manufacturers have the necessary ingredients to make safe, healthy infant formula here at home,” according to a White House fact sheet.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, last week called on the FDA and the Department of Agriculture to do more to ensure the availability of baby formula.