The federal government is trying to resolve a shortage of baby formula that is becoming a crisis, through measures like increasing imports and relaxing regulations.
The unavailability of baby formula is drawing increased attention and finger-pointing, around and outside Washington. The proximate cause is the closure of an Abbott Laboratories plant in Sturgis, Mich., due to discovery of microbial contamination. Out-of-stocks have reached 31% in some areas.
A bill introduced in the House would allow the federal government to relax regulations regarding formula in the Woman, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition assistance program, while urging the states, which administer WIC within their borders, to widen eligibility. The Biden administration announced that it would seek to expand imports of baby formula, which are currently minimal.
FDA Commissioner Robert Califf says that the affected Abbott plant could be up and running in about two weeks. The plant was shuttered in February after infants who consumed formula from there fell ill, although subsequent investigation did not reveal a definitive link.
Califf also says that the FDA will investigate why it took the agency so long to investigate the Sturgis plant after having received complaints of processing conditions there. In addition, the U.S. House Oversight Committee has sent letters to Abbott and other major formula manufacturers asking them to explain the situation and their future response.
The situation has engendered some jockeying for political advantage. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says “the Biden administration has been characteristically sluggish and halting in response,” while U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg blasted Abbott for being “unable to confirm that a plant, a major plant, is safe and free of contamination.”