Months in, Team Biden still can’t get the baby-formula shortage under control
Team Biden just trumpeted that another flight carrying imported baby formula is on its way, this one from Australia. More formula for our nation’s babies is a good thing, but the announcement feels like this administration merely has its finger in the dike and isn’t dealing with the root causes of a broken market.
The average out-of-stock rate in stores and online last month stood at 61%, per Datasembly. The administration has yet to take full responsibility for the shortage while also taking a painfully long time to rectify it.
In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has dragged its feet, taking three months just to relax requirements for imported formula — even though it was an emergency and all the major European formula brands but one met FDA nutrient requirements. A vaccine to combat COVID took less time to be developed; at the same point into the pandemic as we are now at with the formula shortage, we almost had a vaccine emergency-use-authorization application done.
It’s so bad that even in its Monday “good news” press release announcing the newest flight, the administration points users to a website that doesn’t exist, delivering an “Error 404” message — the Internet’s version of “Womp, womp.” If doctors acted like the Biden team, they would lose their licenses.
The shortage is pretty simple to understand. First, the government shut down a baby-formula plant in February after several infants tragically died and one correlational data point was they were all drinking formula produced at the same plant. Formula produced at that plant was recalled, and the plant was shut down. The bacteria that caused the children’s illnesses, however, was not found at the plant. It took time get the clearance needed to restart the plant, and in the meantime the problem got worse.
This shutdown unmasked an even bigger problem — there are so few baby formula plants in the United States that a single shutdown can have major consequences, as we’ve been seeing.
That doesn’t mean we need new legislation mandating more baby-formula manufacturers and plants. In fact, the right answer is that we need less government, not more.
Doctors have been calling for less government in health care for years — and politician after politician, year after year, and party change after party change kept going the other way and adding more and more regulations to the market. Everything changed when COVID swept across the globe. Members of Congress saw that the glut of restrictions that had been put on doctors was making it impossible for their constituents to be cared for in a timely way.
In response, our elected officials rolled back rules about data sharing and health care. They rolled back rules regarding certificate of need (or how many surgical beds were allowed in a state). And they rolled back laws around licensing, making it easier for doctors to see patients in multiple states (or over the phone). It was only after state and federal officials began waiving rules and regulations that things began improving. And of course, the COVID vaccines only came about so quickly because the FDA condensed its review process.
The answer to the pandemic was less government, not more. The answer to the formula shortage is likely also less government instead of more, but an administration that won’t admit anything is wrong is never going to arrive at the correct and enduring solution.
It’s bleak to think that the future of raising a child in the United States is a 61% out-of-stock rate on baby formula. Or maybe the Biden team could just get out of the way and let entrepreneurs solve the problem the same way they have done with almost every other challenge in America.
Marion Mass is a Philadelphia-area pediatrician who trained at Duke University Medical School and Northwestern University and a co-founder of Practicing Physicians of America.