Baby Formula Crisis — What Caused It? What Happens Next?

With a growing baby formula crisis gripping the United States, President Biden has directed his administration to work tirelessly to ensure that baby formula production is ramped up after the February 17 shutdown of Abbott Nutrition, the nation’s largest infant formula manufacturer. 

Abbott Nutrition initiated a voluntary recall of several lines of its powdered formula after concerns over possible bacterial contamination at its Sturgis, Michigan, facility.

Four infants became ill, and two died. The federal government, including the Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of Transportation (DOT), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Department of Justice (DOJ), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), and the White House, have urged other infant formula manufacturers to increase production.

Agencies also seek to expedite the import of infant formula from abroad and are calling on in-store and online retailers to prevent the possibility of hoarding and establish spending limits. 

Families across the United States are growing increasingly concerned about the lack of availability of infant formula.

Abbott’s 20 specialty formulas are used by an estimated 5,000 infants and adults with rare metabolic diseases and some older children. For some of the formulations, Abbott is the only supplier.

Steps the White House is taking

President Biden announced that it would take additional steps to increase infant formula production and move it onto store shelves as quickly and safely as possible.

The measures include the following: 

Cut down on unfair market practices

The Biden administration has called on the state attorneys general and the FTC to crack down on unfair market practices and any price gouging related to infant formula sales.

According to the administration’s request, parents looking for formula for their infant should not be taken advantage of by any retailer price gouging. 

The Department of Justice will be working with state attorneys general to encourage them to address price gouging and devote more resources to monitoring predatory behavior in the infant formula market.

The president has told the FTC to use all available tools to investigate all predatory or illegal conduct reports.

Cut red tape to get formula to store faster

Manufacturers produce many different sizes of the same kind of infant formula. The

administration is urging manufacturers to simplify product offerings and increase the scale and speed of their formula production. 

The USDA is working with states to make it easier for low-income or vulnerable to purchase needed formulas using WIC benefits.

States are being urged to allow WIC recipients to use their WIC benefits on a larger variety of products if certain types or sizes of the formula are out of stock by the USDA. They would then be able to use their benefits on those in stock. 

Increase supply through imports

Typically, the United States produces 98% of the infant formula consumed here.

Trading partners in Chile, the Netherlands, Mexico, and Ireland are critical sources of imports. In the upcoming days, the FDA is expected to announce specific new steps it will take to import certain infant formula products from abroad.

Infant hospitalizations rising

According to reports, the lack of formula sent at least four babies to a children’s hospital in South Carolina.

A hospital in Atlanta also says it treats children due to the shortage. Doctors say patients have been dehydrated and are then given IV fluids.

The numbers are expected to increase as the shortage drags on.

Criticism of White House

Amid growing criticism for a slow response to a crisis that has been brewing for months, the White House appears determined to increase the perception that there’s “nothing more urgent we’re working on,” according to the president.

When questioned about whether his administration had responded as quickly as it could or should have, Biden said, “If we’d been better mind readers, I guess we could’ve. But we moved as quickly as the problem became apparent.”