Where's Biden on the baby formula shortage crisis?

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Same place Joe Biden is on any of the shortage issues that have plagued the US economy — lost in a fog of his own making. The shortage of baby formula in the US has built over several months, but a recall of Abbott-manufactured formula has triggered a national crisis:

A nationwide shortage of infant formula is worsening, sending parents scrambling and lawmakers demanding answers.

For the week starting April 24, the out-of-stock percentage of formula reached 40 percent, according to an analysis by Datasembly, a retail tracking company. That’s an increase from 31 percent at the beginning of April.

In the beginning of May, the nationwide out-of-stock percentage grew even more, and stands at 43 percent for the week ending May 8th, the company said.

Needless to say, this is no joke, as our not-to-be-seen-on-this-issue president might say. Not every new mother can successfully breast-feed, and some babies have other issues which make formula necessary. There are no good substitutes for formula other than breast milk and vice-versa. With birth rates falling in the US, this is clearly not an issue of unusual demand either, as shortages of other groceries and goods might be. This is a failure of the supply-chain system.

The FDA and Abbott recalled a significant amount of inventory in the past few weeks over a bacterial contamination issue that contributed to the deaths of two infants. That shouldn’t have been a problem under normal circumstances as other manufacturers (and other Abbott facilities) would have expanded to keep pace with demand. With supply chains still frozen and component ingredients difficult to access, the production of formula has gotten significantly slowed and can no longer meet demand — a demand that is an absolute necessity, not a convenience or a luxury:

The FDA now says it’s now trying to work with manufacturers to get more product onto the shelves, but they’re coming under fire from both parties in Congress for dropping the ball on both facility inspections and production assurance:

The agency is meeting with major manufacturers to “better understand their capacity to increase production,” and the industry is “already working to maximize their production to meet new demands,” the FDA said.

It is also expediting reviews of manufacturing changes and the issuing of certificates to “allow for flexibility” in importing approved products.

Still, the FDA is under bipartisan criticism for what some lawmakers say is the agency’s failure to react quickly enough to safety concerns at the Abbott plant in Michigan.

Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) said in a statement that the FDA may have “reacted far too slowly” to concerns there raised by a whistleblower in October 2021. The FDA did not inspect the plant in person until the end of January, she said.

Nowhere in this Washington Post report on the shortage can one find a mention of Joe Biden, the White House, or Democrats who run Congress, except for the criticism of the FDA. So where are Biden, his team, and Democrats running Congress?

Oddly enough, WaPo columnist Alyssa Rosenberg also doesn’t mention any of them in her column from yesterday declaring the shortage an “outrage,” and that “a sane country would fix it.” Not once, though, does Rosenberg call out the people who actually run the country for the failures that led to this insane “outrage”:

Babies and their well-being have never been much of a priority in the United States. But an alarming shortage of infant formula — and the lack of a national mobilization to keep babies fed — provides a new measure of how deeply that indifference runs.

Formula has been in short supply since the early days of the covid-19 pandemic. Back then, customers who could afford it stockpiled formula to limit their trips outside. A manufacturing and delivery cycle that takes between 12 and 16 weeks from start to finish didn’t keep pace. Freight delays held up crucial ingredients. Like many other industries, formula manufacturers struggled with labor shortages. And as 2021 turned into 2022, a spate of severe winter storms slowed deliveries of products to store shelves.

The manufacturing gaps Rosenberg notes came from pandemic policies that required employers to shut down operations, then retool for social distancing as a requirement to re-open. Biden amplified those problems with vaccine mandates and threatened OSHA enforcement of vaccine mandates, mask mandates, and the social-distancing policies that should have been discarded by the fall of last year, with vaccines in plentiful supply.

Even if people thought those measures were entirely necessary, though, the White House still didn’t act to mitigate their impacts. Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and other ignored the supply chain crisis for months, until the back-up of ships in port became too large to ignore. And even then, they only focused on transport chain issues rather than manufacturing, except when it came to semiconductors. And that was only because the tech and auto industries began screaming about it.

Rosenberg does make some good policy points in this piece, but again it prompts the question of why Biden and congressional Democrats didn’t foresee a critical issue:

For families with unfussy little eaters, a shortage of one product might be a mere annoyance. But for those who receive aid from the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children — which limits recipients to a few brands of formula, and for which Abbott is a major contract-holder — the situation is considerably more difficult. Circumstances are even more dire for babies (and older children and adults with feeding tubes) whose life-threatening allergies or metabolic issues mean they can tolerate only certain formulas. …

Both she and Dittmeier said that in the long term, it would be worth revisiting the policies that leave families who receive public assistance reliant on certain brands — although Dittmeier pointed out that it might be hard to get manufacturers to bid on contracts without the promise that they would become the sole supplier for an entire state.

Wouldn’t this bottleneck have become apparent in the pandemic slowdowns? If so, why hasn’t Congress addressed it directly, and why hasn’t Biden taken any action to prompt solutions to it? These issues should have come to the immediate fore at least by October 2021 when the potential for derailing Abbott as a provider became apparent at the FDA. Instead, seven months later, the FDA, Congress, and Biden are now playing catch-up while babies can’t get food to eat.

Rosenberg’s demanding accountability for real failures, but she seems very reluctant to hold those in power for the last 15 months responsible for those failures. That’s why we have those failures in the first place, as the paper that styles itself as the bulwark against the “darkness” that threatens democracy should know.