The latest on the baby formula crisis: Mike Lee’s bill passes Senate

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lllustration by Alex Cochran, Deseret News

The U.S. Senate on Thursday unanimously passed an amended version of Sen. Mike Lee’s FORMULA Act to help address the baby formula shortage that’s had families with young children scrambling since February.

The acronym in the bill’s name stands for “Fixing Our Regulatory Mayhem Upsetting Little Americans” — a title the Utah Republican called one of his best recently during a subcommittee hearing.

Lee said that while the crisis followed a recall and temporary closure of a formula-making plant in Sturgis, Michigan, it highlights “systemic weaknesses in this vital supply chain,” according to a news release from Lee’s office.

The modified bill will lift tariffs on importation of baby formula for 90 days and reduce the costs retailers pay in trying to keep their shelves stocked during that time.

“I am thrilled that a modified version of my FORMULA Act passed the Senate today,” Lee said in a prepared statement. “This bill will make baby formula more affordable and more available for American families struggling to feed their hungry babies. I am grateful for the bipartisan help of my colleagues in getting this bill through.”

Lee noted that Utah families are especially hard-hit by the shortage and said there’s still more to do to solve the crisis. Other government barriers to competition and importation of safe formula remain, he said, as he promised to work with colleagues “to ensure this crisis is resolved and similar difficulties never happen again.”

A crisis unfolds

Infant formula was already in somewhat short supply due to supply chain issues and people stockpiling formula when Abbott Nutrition recalled some of its baby formula over fear the product was related to a bacterial infection that sickened several infants; two of them died. All had consumed formula manufactured by the company.

Then an inspection of Abbott’s plant in Sturgis, Michigan, found cronobacter sakazakii in the plant, though not in any product, and the factory — the largest infant formula plant in the country — was temporarily closed. Abbott has maintained that the bacteria found did not match the bacterial infection that sickened the infants.

The company entered into a consent decree to make safety and other improvements and reopen the plant, which occurred June 4. But less than two weeks later, a massive storm flooded the factory, which is now again shuttered for major repairs.

Meanwhile, other manufacturers and the Biden administration have tried to improve the supply of baby formula on U.S. store shelves, but it’s expected to be at least a few more weeks before the crisis has fully passed.

As Deseret News reported, the president invoked the Defense Production Act to allow the diversion of needed materials from other manufacturers to boost production of baby formula. Under Operation Fly Formula, military and commercial planes have been used to fly in formula from other countries, though so far most of the imported product has been hypoallergenic baby formula for babies allergic to cows’ milk or with other medical challenges.

WWMT reported that, in the past month, the Food and Drug Administration has helped facilitate the importation of about 17 million cans of infant formula products from six different countries.

Other U.S. manufacturers have stepped up production, helped in part by the Defense Production Act. Individuals have also tried to help by sharing formula, providing breast milk and searching store shelves for formula to help those who can’t find any in their community.

Health officials caution families not to try to make their own formula. It’s too complicated to meet a baby’s nutritional needs and can create health problems.

Lois M. Collins

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