Despite Congress’ efforts, it’ll take time to refill the baby bottles

Lawmakers are scrambling to end the formula shortage, but experts say it will be months before families will feel an impact

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro has introduced a spending bill that includes $28 million to stem the baby formula shortage. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro has introduced a spending bill that includes $28 million to stem the baby formula shortage. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 18, 2022 at 5:01am

Lawmakers are throwing nearly every tool in their arsenal, including a proposed $28 million in taxpayer dollars, at the baby formula shortage. But it isn’t clear how quickly those solutions will result in cans on grocery store shelves.

The shortage is dire — right now, roughly 40 percent of infant formula is missing from shelves in the United States. And while new actions announced by the Food and Drug Administration on Monday night will help stem the shortage, it may take up to two months to see a difference.

On Tuesday, House appropriators led by Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced a $28 million emergency supplemental bill to help the FDA address the infant formula shortage and prevent future shortages. Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said the House would debate the rule for the baby formula supplemental Wednesday and debate and vote on it Thursday.  

Asked how quickly DeLauro’s legislation would help get formula back on shelves, both DeLauro and Speaker Nancy Pelosi were short on answers. Instead, DeLauro pressured her Senate colleagues to pass the bill.

“This is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. This is about the risk in the life of babies in this country,” DeLauro said.

The spending bill includes provisions to make it easier for the FDA to prevent fraudulent formula from hitting the shelves in American stores, help the agency get more data on the baby formula marketplace and increase FDA inspection staff for baby formula.

DeLauro told reporters that she plans to soon introduce another bill that provides more authority to the FDA to increase supply, and that she and her colleagues are looking at opportunities to use the Defense Production Act to increase supply.

The emergency supplemental bill was announced the day after the FDA announced new trade standards to help ease the importation of baby formula from other countries. The agency on Monday also announced a deal with Abbott Nutrition to reopen its shuttered Michigan plant. 

These two actions are expected to increase baby formula supply in the coming months but do little to answer questions about what parents should do in the near term. Once the FDA gives the Abbott plant the green light to reopen, it will take two weeks to get production going, then another six to eight weeks to get product to shelves. 

Asked what parents should do in the interim, the White House dismissed reports that parents cannot access baby formula and said more formula is now coming off production lines than prior to the Abbott recall.

“There is infant formula available. At the same time, we are absolutely mindful of how challenging this is,” a White House senior administration official told reporters Monday night. She suggested that families consider switching formula brands and advised them not to make their own formula at home or water down formula.

Pelosi said the biggest issues with the formula shortage include determining where shortages are and distributing the supply evenly. Congress is looking at partnering with private sector facilities to help move supply, and DeLauro’s bill could help speed that process, Pelosi said. The $28 million emergency supplemental could also help the FDA quickly inspect baby formula production plants abroad.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., are working on another baby formula bill that would target shortages in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC. About half of babies in the United States access formula through WIC. The Department of Agriculture recently extended flexibilities in formula brands that WIC recipients can purchase, and Stabenow and Scott’s bill would make those flexibilities permanent.

Senate Republicans did not immediately commit to supporting the House’s baby formula supplemental. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said the administration needs to focus on bringing in formula from abroad and upping U.S. supply. 

Several Republican senators, including Richard C. Shelby and Tommy Tuberville, both of Alabama, said they wanted to see more details on how the bill will help families.

“I’d be glad to look at it, though I’d be surprised if it solved any problem in the next couple of weeks,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Committee scrutiny

Several committees have scheduled hearings on the infant formula shortage.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee will hold a hearing May 25 on the formula shortage, Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., said. FDA Commissioner Robert Califf is set to attend, as are representatives from the baby food companies Abbott, Gerber and Reckitt.

The House Appropriations Committee will hold two hearings over the coming week to examine the shortage of infant formula. 

On May 19, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee will hold a hearing with Califf on the FDA’s 2023 budget request as well as oversight of infant formula. On May 25, the same subcommittee plans to convene a panel of experts to discuss the shortage.