An infant formula shortage crisis continues to impact families across the United States. Policy approaches that enforce antitrust laws and increase social safety net programs can help alleviate many causes of the infant formula shortage.
Three U.S.-based companies, including Abbott Nutrition, Gerber Products Company, and Reckitt, produce about 98 percent of the formula purchased in the U.S., according to the Center for American Progress (CAP). Earlier this year, the Abbott Nutrition plant shut down after four infants became ill from a contaminated batch of formula, resulting in a nationwide shortage.
A few months after the shutdown, the Abbott Nutrition plants resumed production. Still, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Robert Califf says the formula shortage will “take a while to fix.” Recent data from Information Resources, Inc. (IRI) Worldwide reveals that 70 percent of infant formula remains out of stock nationwide.
“Single parents and guardians in low-wage jobs [who are] already disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and economic recession” are struggling to feed their children, Arohi Pathak, Director of Policy for CAP’s Poverty to Prosperity Program, tells Food Tank.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that infants in low-income families, infants of color, and infants living in rural communities are most likely to consume formula and are, therefore, most at risk.
“The shortage is also severely affecting women who do not breastfeed, foster, adoptive, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex (LGBTQI+) parents,” Pathak says. “Individuals with disabilities or other health issues who rely on formula for their nutritional intake and survival,” Pathak mentions, are also finding it difficult to acquire formula.
To prevent future shortages, Pathak urges policymakers to focus on “long-term solutions.” These include reducing the market concentration of domestically-produced formula and directing FDA to identify reliable foreign formula producers that meet FDA safety, nutrition, and other standards.
Pathak also mentions that policymakers can reinforce social safety nets by increasing access and affordability of formula to “protect women and children who are particularly vulnerable to shortages.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates half of all the infant formula sold in the U.S is distributed to families through the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). WIC supports an estimated 6 million low-income mothers, infants, and children up to age 5, according to the USDA.
Lifting federal restrictions on the types of formula WIC recipients can purchase, as well as increasing access to formula options, according to Pathak and CAP, can help mitigate the impacts of supply chain shortages, public health crises, and other emergencies.
In response to the infant formula supply shortage, the Biden-Harris Administration invoked the Defense Production Act to stock baby formula immediately. Through Operation Fly Formula, the Biden-Harris Administration is partnering with the USDA, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the General Services Administration (GSA), and the Department of Defense (DOD) to import formula from overseas that meets U.S. health and safety standards.
The Biden-Harris Administration also reports working with states to increase WIC benefits by allowing recipients to apply their benefits toward a wider variety of infant formulas. However, lawmakers, including Congressman Jim McGovern, urge policymakers to focus on long-term solutions that eliminate corporate consolidation of infant formula, such as targeted enforcement of antitrust laws that ensure shortages “never happen again.”
Pathak says the forthcoming White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health will provide an opportunity for policymakers to invest in long-term solutions that can “foster equitable and sustainable access to food and nutrition” for all Americans, especially WIC recipients.
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