As the amount of out-of-stock baby formula has grown for 20 weeks straight, one Ohio lawmaker is looking to make a lasting change to stop the shortage in its tracks by making more formula choices available to low-income parents.
On Thursday, Republican Rep. Mike Turner is introducing the Improving Newborn Formula Access for a Nutritious Tomorrow (INFANT) Act which targets restrictions on baby formula manufacturer contracts with states under the government-assistance Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.
Currently under the program, state agencies are permitted to provide WIC consumers with one brand of infant formula, later receiving a rebate from the manufacturer for each can of formula purchased.
While the US Department of Agriculture has touted this program as a way to serve more customers, the restrictions on formula supply limited WIC consumers from purchasing other formulas as a massive shortage hit this spring.
“This federally created market distortion is the major problem and it needs to be addressed,” Turner told The Post. “Whether we have a problem where we have the expression of the problem now or in the future…this is a market distortion problem.”
Turner pointed out that even parents who are not a part of the WIC program – which is limited to parents with lower income – are all subject to the federal effects of the market where they live.
“This is all a result of a federally created problem, so we need a federal solution,” he said.
Turner’s bill is seeking to block WIC contracts from allowing large manufacturers from controlling 70% of supply in a state. The congressman outlined that this move would also foster competitiveness in the market and boost the supply chain.
“We want to go in and change that process, make it more competitive, lower those barriers to entry,” he said. “So perhaps even other food providers, food manufacturers might enter the market or certainly there would be more competitiveness in the market that can result in increased supply.”
“Now the Biden administration could step in and do this, but they’re not,” Turner later claimed. “And so that’s why we’re dropping this bill because Congress is going to have to lead.”
In mid-May, when the baby formula shortage dominated headlines, the Biden administration did announce several federal actions to get more formula on the shelves – most notably through Operation Fly Formula.
The program has authorized the Pentagon to use its contracts with commercial airlines to transport the formula from places like Europe and Australia to boost supply.
As of July 24 – the flights have transported more than 61 million eight-bottle equivalents of formula to the US. This amount still falls short of the approximately 65 million that American consumers purchase weekly, according to the market research firm IRI.
“Our hope is also that because there’s going to be more flexibility with WIC in the ability of WIC recipients to purchase different kinds of formula, enabling many people who are maybe waiting for their states to make that decision, and also that states will have this rebate opportunity, it will provide the incentive to further provide flexibility — that will also help,” then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at the time.
The Food and Drug Administration has also taken action to increase formula import in recent months – and has imported more than 520 million full-size 8-ounce bottles from other countries as of July 14.
With the out-of-stock supply of powdered baby formula sitting at 31.38% as of July 17, per IRI, Turner labeled these administration efforts as simply “short term solutions.”
“We can’t put ourselves in a position where we’re dependent on importing baby formula,” he said. “We have the market, we have the ability to produce. We just need to get the market to work again so that formula is produced and available for families.”
This months-long shortage stems from a massive decrease in supply after the February closure of the country’s largest plant – Abbott Laboratories in Michigan.
The factory restarted operations last month – but quickly shuttered their doors again after storm damage. Abbott finally reopened July 1 and restarted production of EleCare formula.
As formula begins to re-enter the market, Turner told The Post that his goal is to highlight “the fact that the system is broken and we need to take action.”
“Our goal is to fix the system. The administration is doing all short term fixes,” he said. “So our hope is to engage both Congress and the administration in the debate. They can come to the conclusion that the system is broken, this is not a temporary disruption in production. This is a problem that the federal government has created.”