“When supply chain issues caused a baby formula shortage last year, Congress (eventually) cut tariffs to help get more formula onto American store shelves.
It worked! Imports of baby formula soared during the second half of 2022 after tariffs and other regulations were lifted. Stores reported lower out-of-stock rates and news stories about panicked parents being unable to feed their infants abated. In short, the government removed economic barriers and the market solved the problem.
Then, the government put those barriers back in place. On January 1, the tariffs on baby formula returned. Now, so has the crisis.
“It’s getting harder and harder” to find baby formula, pharmacy owner Anil Datwani told Fox News this week. “[Mothers] go from one store to the next store to the next store” looking for baby formula.
Meanwhile, some consumers are complaining on social media that prices for baby formula have suddenly spiked and availability is once again a problem. A Forbes investigation into a recent increase in the price of Enfamil baby formula noted that the increases “follow the expiration of the U.S. government’s suspension of infant formula tariffs in January, which opened the door for formula (both foreign and U.S.-produced) to become more expensive.” (Another contributing factor: Reckitt Benckiser, the British-based company that owns the Enfamil brand, issued a recall in February affecting about 145,000 cans of formula.)
Because that’s what tariffs do, of course. They are import taxes that protect domestic industries at the expense of domestic consumers, who are subjected to limited supply and higher prices as a trade-off for industrial protectionism.”
“My son was born with severe heartburn and cried constantly—and the baby formula on the shelves only caused him more pain. At the suggestion of our pediatrician, we turned to a European goat milk formula that we hoped could soothe my son’s stomach until he grew out of his condition. But recently our orders were canceled, thanks to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
America’s baby formulas are incredibly standardized. The FDA claims that that’s safer, but those regulations mean that most formulas have multiple ingredients that could be allergens or irritants. Milk-based formulas in the U.S. also have soy ingredients like soy oil, as well as palm oil. And most American formulas have higher than average levels of iron, which can cause constipation. While many European brands are similar to American ones, you can find brands there that don’t contain so many possible irritants to a child’s sensitive stomach. We used Nannycare, and my son found it much more tolerable than its stateside competitors.
It’s impossible to say for sure why my English supplier suddenly decided not to sell formulas to a buyer in the U.S. But the timing of the cancellation provides a clue: It happened shortly after the FDA blocked a large amount of European formula from being sold, declaring that they did not meet the agency’s standards.
We are far from the only family that relies on European baby formula. Yet the free flow of perfectly safe goods into the United States is still extremely restricted. The agency’s strict rules about how formulas can be made limit options for children with medical issues and leaves parents with products that can cause their little ones pain.
Worse yet, these regulations are more driven by bureaucratic and political interests than by science. These products, after all, have not caused a wave of problems for European babies.”
“it’s the FDA’s unnecessary and protectionist rules that effectively ban foreign-made baby formula from being imported into the United States. On Wednesday, the agency announced plans to tweak those rules so foreign formula manufacturers can permanently import their goods into the U.S., giving American consumers greater choice in the marketplace and ensuring more robust supply chains.”
” When the Abbott Nutrition plant in Michigan was forced to close temporarily due to an FDA investigation into possible contamination, it created a supply shock that left store shelves empty and parents scrambling to find formula. Because of the FDA’s protectionist rules (and high tariffs levied on foreign-made formula), markets could not adapt quickly to the shortage here in America”
“In testimony to Congress, FDA officials admitted to botching the response to the contamination at the Abbott plant. But the real culprit of the recent shortage was a deeper and more pervasive one. No matter what nationalists like Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) might suggest, closing off the country to international trade is not a recipe for resilience. The baby formula crisis demonstrated that it is quite the opposite.
So it’s good to see the FDA admit those mistakes and crack open the door to allowing foreign formula into the U.S. on a permanent basis.
Unfortunately, the list of policy changes the FDA announced..mostly amounts to providing technical assistance to foreign firms that want to sell formula here. That is, offering help in navigating the complex approval process, rather than sweeping aside those regulations entirely. If a formula maker has passed muster under E.U. regulations, that should be good enough for the FDA.
There’s also the matter of tariffs on imported formula, which are so high that they effectively make any imported formula uncompetitive in the American market. Why would a foreign manufacturer like Holle or HiPP go through the complicated FDA approval process (even after the announced changes) if it knows in advance that its goods won’t be able to compete on a level playing field in America?”
“The country’s ongoing shortage of infant formula has been exacerbated and prolonged by a long list of counterproductive government interventions: from tariffs and trade restrictions to price-distorting subsidies and nonsensical labeling requirements.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams has decided to throw one more log on the fire by issuing an emergency order limiting price increases on infant formula.
“The nationwide infant formula shortage has caused unimaginable pain and anxiety for families across New York—and we must act with urgency,” said Adams on Sunday. “This emergency executive order will help us to crack down on any retailer looking to capitalize on this crisis by jacking up prices on this essential good.”
The mayor’s order invokes city rules that prohibit merchants from raising prices more than 10 percent from where they were 30–60 days preceding the emergency. Adams urged people to report potential gouging to the city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection.”
“sudden price hikes discourage people from engaging in harmful and unproductive hoarding.”
“Higher prices make once unprofitable activities suddenly lucrative. For example, it’s usually not profitable to drive 100 miles to sell people bags of ice. That calculation changes when a hurricane drives up the price of ice to $15 a bag.
Conversely, if price gouging laws force a bag of ice to be sold at $1, hurricane or not, a lot fewer potential suppliers are going to be induced to take that trip. The result is more people go without ice.
Adams’s order will similarly deprive New Yorkers of much-needed formula. Out-of-city suppliers who might have incurred higher transportation costs to reap the rewards of higher prices in the Big Apple will instead sell off closer to home. That’ll be particularly true if they’re located in a jurisdiction that hasn’t banned market prices on baby formula.
The federal policies driving the formula shortage—whether that’s prohibitive tariffs on baby formula or labeling rules that keep European products off the market—are outside the control of local officials like Adams, who are nevertheless expected by their constituents to do something.
The least the mayor could do, however, is not make the formula problem worse. His emergency order shows he can’t even clear that bar.”
“The uproar over infant formula shortages is prompting lawmakers to confront how a federal nutrition program may be helping a small handful of formula manufacturers dominate the U.S. market.
The federal government’s widely-used nutrition program for women, infants and children, known as WIC, is by far the largest purchaser of formula in the U.S., with more than half of infant formula in the U.S. going through the program. And just two companies serve close to 90 percent of the infants who receive benefits through the program, in part because of the way WIC awards its contracts.”
“The Abbott recall and resulting shortages were especially disruptive for WIC recipients. About half of all babies born in the U.S. qualify for WIC, which serves low-income families. Many of these households don’t have the time or resources to drive around looking for alternative formula brands or scour the internet for available stocks. Even if parents and caregivers could find alternative formulas, their WIC benefits might not have covered the specific brand they could find when the shortages first hit.
For the past three decades, WIC has used what’s called sole-source contracting, which is designed to save the program money by allowing the states to buy formula far below retail prices. The National WIC Association estimates that state rebates save about $1.7 billion in costs each year. When a state contracts with a company, all WIC participants in the state use that same manufacturer. Just three companies have been awarded contracts during this time: Abbott Nutrition; Mead Johnson, which makes Enfamil; and Nestle, which makes Gerber.”
““The dirty secret about WIC is these formula companies actually lose money on formula that they sell through WIC,” because the lowest bidder ends up winning the state contracts, explained a former Democratic Senate aide. “But what happens is… if you give birth in a hospital and you request formula, you’re going to get the formula that is whoever has the WIC contract,” allowing the formula makers to reach a massive pool of new customers. Getting a state WIC contract can also mean more favorable shelf space at retailers across the state and more brand loyalty.
Not everyone agrees about the extent to which sole-source contracting has driven consolidation in the formula industry, versus other factors, like overall consolidation across the food sector and high food safety regulatory costs, since infant formula is more highly regulated than most other foods.”
” But the USDA’s Economic Research Service in 2011 found that switching a state WIC contract gave the new manufacturer about a 74 percent bump up in market share in the state. Most of that is the result of WIC participants switching — since they make up more than half the market — but the rest is the result of more preferential treatment at the retail level.”
“Migrants in detention centers aren’t free to leave facilities whenever they want to shop for baby formula. Legally, essential products must be provided to migrant children that the government has detained. “Facilities will provide access to…drinking water and food as appropriate,” reads the 1997 Flores settlement that addressed the treatment of migrant children. A 2015 Customs and Border Patrol document on detention standards noted that “food must be appropriate for at-risk detainees’ age and capabilities (such as formula and baby food).” These legal standards predate the Biden administration.
Nor would diverting baby formula away from immigrant detention centers ease supply chain woes in a meaningful way. Ursula—the facility Cammack singled out on Twitter—holds around 1,100 detainees. The number of American parents who rely on formula to feed their infants is on the order of millions. Though several Republican lawmakers and right-leaning news outlets are agitating about the “pallets of baby formula for all of the illegals who are crossing into the United States,” none have been able to say exactly how much formula is going to detention facilities or how often shipments are arriving.
The baby formula shortage is indeed a huge problem. About 40 percent of top baby formula brands are out of stock right now, and producers are warning that shortages could last for several months. But the shortage wasn’t caused by the government’s legal duty to feed the kids it has confined. “Much of the current shortage is rooted in a February recall of formula after a suspected bacterial outbreak at an Abbott Nutrition plant in Michigan,” explains Reason’s Eric Boehm. And while we could re-fill those shelves with formula from abroad, tariffs and quotas “make it burdensome and costly to import the supplies that are now desperately needed.”
You can’t solve the national shortage by making it harder for undocumented parents to feed their babies. Instead of looking for immigrant scapegoats, lawmakers should tackle the trade and regulatory policies that helped create the current shortage.”