House passes bills to address baby formula shortage

Washington — The House of Representatives passed two bills to address the nationwide baby formula shortage Wednesday night as families continue to face bare shelves across the nation.

One measure would help enable recipients to buy formula by giving the Agriculture secretary the permanent flexibility to waive certain requirements the special supplemental nutrition program for poorer women, infants and children, known as WIC, that limit the brands and quantities of formula that WIC recipients may purchase. The bill would also require that formula manufacturers have contingency plans for protecting against disruptions in supply in the event of a recall. It passed with a large bipartisan majority of 414 to 9.

All nine “no” votes were cast by Republicans: Reps. Andy Biggs, of Arizona; Lauren Boebert, of Colorado; Thomas Massie, of Kentucky; Clay Higgins, of Louisiana; Matt Gaetz, of Florida; Chip Roy, of Texas; Paul Gosar, of Arizona; Louie Gohmert, of Texas and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. 

A second measure to provide an extra $28 million to the Food and Drug Administration to help get fraudulent formula products off store shelves and boost the part of the workforce focused on formula, as well as FDA inspection staff, also passed, but with just 12 Republicans voting in favor.

Republicans said the plan did not force the FDA to come up with a plan to immediately address the shortage, nor did it force federal agencies to look for formula that could be immediately redirected to American households or use the power of the federal government to move formula around. They also said the FDA already had enough money to deal with the crisis. 

“The answer to the formula shortage is the families need more formula, and we need to get one of the largest domestic producers of formula safely operating again,” said Republican Rep. Andy Harris, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the FDA. “But this is not a money problem, it’s a leadership problem. It’s another example of this administration disregard for hard working American families who are already struggling with record high gas prices, food prices and inflation soaring to a 40 year high.”

Both bills, which now head to the Senate, are Congress’ first legislative step toward alleviating the baby formula shortage since headlines about empty store shelves began dominating the news earlier this month. 

On Wednesday, President Biden announced that he will invoke the Defense Production Act to address the baby formula shortage, meaning suppliers will be required to give resources to infant formula plants before sending them to other customers. 

Mr. Biden also announced a program called Operation Fly Formula, which will use Defense Department aircraft to pick up overseas infant formula that meets U.S. health and safety standards. 

Already experiencing supply chain issues because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the baby formula shortage was exacerbated after a manufacturing plant from formula maker Abbott, the nation’s largest, was shuttered in February after FDA inspectors found a bacteria inside the Michigan facility. Abbott issued a recall for formula products made at its plant in Sturgis, Michigan, after four infants became sick with bacterial infections and two died.

A recent analysis from Datasembly, which tracks formula stock at more than 11,000 stores, found that 43% of the top-selling baby formula products were out of stock at retailers across the country as of the week ending May 8. Formula was more scarce in five states, where more than half of the top-selling products were not available.

As part of its efforts to alleviate the scramble for families nationwide, the FDA announced Monday it had reached an agreement with Abbott on necessary steps to reopen the plant, with production expected to begin in roughly two weeks. Abbott said it will take between six and eight weeks for its products to get back on store shelves.

The FDA is also taking steps to ease import rules for overseas manufacturers, which will allow more formula products into the U.S. market. 

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