House panel launches investigation into baby formula shortage

The House Oversight and Reform Committee is launching an investigation into the ongoing baby formula shortage, pressing the four largest domestic manufacturers for documents and information about the steps they are taking to alleviate the crisis.

The four companies — Abbott, Reckitt Benckiser, Nestlé and Perrigo — control nearly 90 percent of the U.S. market for baby formula.

“The national formula shortage poses a threat to the health and economic security of infants and families in communities throughout the country—particularly those with less income who have historically experienced health inequities, including food insecurity,” committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) wrote to the companies.

The lawmakers asked if the companies have enough supply to meet current demand and what steps they are taking to lower prices, prevent price gouging and increase consumer access.

Maloney and Krishnamoorthi said the committee wants a briefing and responses from the manufacturers by May 26.  

Retail supply of formula has been spotty for months because of supply chain pressures and labor shortages, but the situation dramatically worsened in February with a nationwide recall of products made by Abbott Nutrition and subsequent shutdown of one of its key manufacturing plants because of contamination concerns.

The recall was sparked by four reports of a rare bacteria that causes deadly infections in babies. Two infants died. 

The committee said it is seeking documents from Abbott relating to the conditions at its Sturgis, Michigan, plant that led to the recalls of several of its infant formula products. Abott is one of the largest suppliers of formula in the country, and the Sturgis plant specifically was the manufacturer of much of the country’s supply of specialty formula.

The shortages have left parents scrambling, with many being forced to ration food or travel for hours to obtain formula. Retailers are also instituting purchasing limits to manage inventory.

While shortages have persisted for months, the situation has escalated politically in the past few days as lawmakers seek to cast blame. Republicans are largely centering their political attacks on the Biden administration.

But both Democrats and Republicans are asking tough questions of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and raising concerns about the thoroughness of the agency’s food safety inspections. 

The House Energy and Commerce Committee said it will hold a hearing later this month and is likely to call witnesses from the FDA and Abbott.

Abbott on Wednesday said it could have its Michigan plant up and running in two weeks if the FDA allowed it to reopen.

But the FDA has not given a time frame for when that might happen. The FDA cited Abbott’s plant for not being “clean and sanitary,” and inspectors said they observed significant food safety issues at the plant that risked contamination of formula, including five different strains of Cronobacter on the floor and on the wall.  

Abbott said testing has confirmed there is no evidence to link its formulas to the illnesses. While Cronobacter was found in the plant, the company said genetic sequencing on the two available samples from ill infants did not match the strains found in the plant

However, the FDA said its investigation is ongoing. 

Tags baby formula baby formula shortage Carolyn Maloney Raja Krishnamoorthi

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