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baby formula shelves

Portions of a baby formula display shelf were empty at a Walmart grocery store in Orlando on May 8, 2022. (Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

House Progressives Urge Executive Action From Biden on Baby Formula 'Emergency'

"We have an infant hunger crisis looming," said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, "and a whole of government response is required."

Kenny Stancil

A group of progressive House Democrats led by Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Ayanna Pressley sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Tuesday urging the White House to use all available executive authorities to end the nation's pressing baby formula shortage, which has been driven by corporate monopolization.

"President Biden must use every power available to him to end this shortage now and to prevent a near-monopoly such as this one from creating another crisis in the future."

"In a country with innumerable resources available, our babies and anyone who relies on specialty powdered formula to meet their nutritional needs should never go without," Bowman (N.Y.) said in a statement. "We are experiencing a severe and nationwide baby formula shortage due to Abbott Nutrition's corporate greed that prioritized profits over people."

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shut down Abbott's plant in Sturgis, Michigan in February after several infants who consumed formulas manufactured there were hospitalized with bacterial infections and at least two died. Select batches of Similac, Alimentum, and EleCare powders produced at Abbott's Sturgis facility were also removed from shelves due to safety concerns.

As the letter makes clear, the corporate giant has routinely put its bottom line over public health: "Infant formula made by Abbott Nutrition tested positive for a deadly bacteria at least twice in 2019 during FDA inspections under the Trump administration that resulted in no corrective actions from the previous administration. Later in 2021, Abbott Nutrition chose to continue selling contaminated powdered infant formulas to the public for four months despite evidence of deadly bacteria found at a facility in September 2021."

Because just four companies—Abbott, Reckitt Benckiser, Nestlé, and Perrigo—control almost 90% of the U.S. baby formula market, parents have been left scrambling to feed their newborns amid the manufacturing pause and product recall. Abbott also happens to be the exclusive supplier of formula for over half of the nation's Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) agencies. WIC is the nation's largest purchaser of baby formula, and program beneficiaries can only be reimbursed if they buy the brands that contract with the government.

"Families not having access to safe and affordable baby formula is a national emergency," said Rep. Grace Meng (N.Y.), "which is why we are asking the president to immediately take action to address this vital problem."

Warning that the "lives of millions of babies are in danger right now," Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, urged Biden to use all tools at the federal government's disposal "to get formula back on the shelves, get our most vulnerable fed, and ensure this never happens again."

The FDA on Monday reached an agreement with Abbott on the steps that need to be taken before its shuttered plant can resume production, which might start to alleviate the ongoing baby formula shortage. 

But progressives are demanding that the White House go further to address the current emergency and prevent future ones.

"President Biden must use every power available to him," said Bowman, "to end this shortage now and to prevent a near-monopoly such as this one from creating another crisis in the future."

In their letter to the president, the lawmakers implored Biden "to do everything within your executive authority, across all federal agencies, and in partnership with state and local governments to address the infant formula shortage impacting families across our country."

Specifically, the letter continues:

It is imperative that the federal government work to immediately investigate the causes of these shortages and work to diligently and safely increase domestic supply while ensuring that families are protected from price gouging. We request that you direct all agencies to identify and utilize all authorities, available funds, and capacity that can be dedicated to ending the infant formula shortage, including current authorities available through the public health emergency for Covid-19, and any and all authorities under the Defense Production Act.

[...]

Additionally, your administration should engage, to the greatest extent feasible, early childhood development experts, pediatric nutritionists, and community action agencies on sustainable solutions. Further, we urge that the Federal Trade Commission pursue a robust and wide-ranging study of the infant formula industry to identify the practices and conditions that led to the shortage and to establish the necessary regulatory response.

A reliable, affordable supply of safe and nutritious infant formula is critical for healthy growth and development of our children. Neuroscience research has shown that 80% of the foundation of a child's brain development occurs in the first 1,000 days of life, which means the first three years of a child's life is critical for a child's health, learning, and executive function. Without access to proper nutrition, babies will face starvation at a formative period of development that will have long-lasting consequences over the course of their lives. Our youngest children are not the only ones particularly vulnerable. Recent estimates have shown that about 2,000 people live with severe metabolic, gastrointestinal, and allergic disorders that require them to rely on formula as a means of survival. In the wealthiest nation in the world, a formula shortage is a form of violence that should be absolutely inconceivable.

In addition to calling for executive action, the members of Congress made clear their commitment "to moving urgently on any and all legislative actions to ensure an immediate, short-term response to the infant formula shortage, with transparency and accountability for the actions of Abbott Nutrition and any other manufacturers who have heinously profited from the shortage."

The lawmakers also emphasized the need for "long-term solutions that include more equitable economic planning for critical sectors and supplies, like infant formula, and ensuring such frameworks prioritize a full supply chain public option and other measures to prevent against corporate interests that put profits over people, including our very youngest and most vulnerable."

As Pressley (Mass.) put it, "We have an infant hunger crisis looming and a whole of government response is required."


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