With the nation continuing to face a shortage in infant formula, lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives launched a probe to determine what manufacturers of baby food are doing to address the crisis.
On May 13, leaders of the House’s Committee on Oversight and Reform and Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy sent letters to four companies that they said control nearly 90% of the U.S. market for manufacturing of formula.
The Biden administration, FDA and lawmakers have been scrambling to address the acute shortage in infant formula after Abbott Nutrition—the country’s largest infant formula maker—in February initiated a recall of several lines of its formula and halted production at its manufacturing facility in Sturgis, Michigan.
The action was taken following concerns over bacterial contamination at Abbott Nutrition’s facility. In a Feb. 28 update advising consumers not to use certain powdered infant formula, FDA said it was aware of five reported illnesses that led to hospitalization, including two deaths.
On Twitter last week, Abbott Nutrition said an investigation found no evidence that its formulas caused the illnesses.
“All retained product tested by Abbott and the FDA during the inspection of the facility came back negative for Cronobacter and/or Salmonella,” the company said, adding the Cronobacter sakazakii found in environmental testing during the probe has not been linked to any known infant illness.
In addition to seeking information on steps taken by baby formula manufacturers to address the scarcity of infant formula, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform requested documents from Abbott Nutrition concerning conditions at its Sturgis plant that resulted in the nationwide recalls.
Letters were sent to Abbott Nutrition, Mead Johnson Nutrition, Nestlé USA and Perrigo Company.
“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,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, wrote to the companies. “It is critical that your company take all possible steps to increase the supply of formula and prevent price gouging.”
Perrigo said it was operating its facilities 24/7 with its facilities at full capacity, and in the three months ending March 31, the company shipped 37% more formula compared to the same period last year.
“By optimizing our portfolio, we have increased production output by 15% above full capacity and expect to be able to continue to do so until this crisis is resolved so parents and caregivers can help babies thrive,” Perrigo said in an emailed statement.
Mead Johnson Nutrition, which is owned by Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC, met last week with President Joe Biden to discuss the infant formula crisis. The president also met with the CEOs of Gerber, Target and Walmart. Reckitt, the maker of Enfamil, provides more than half the infant formula in the U.S., according to the company.
“We had a productive conversation with President Biden on ways we can work together to address the nation’s infant formula shortage,” Reckitt said in an emailed statement. “We are running our plants 24/7, which has enabled us to increase supply to parents and infants by more than 30%— feeding 200,000 more babies than was possible at the start of the shortage.”
Nonetheless, widespread media reports depict empty shelves of infant formula at U.S. retailers, with parents fretting over how they can give their babies the nutrition they require.
In a May 13 letter to her colleagues, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi previewed bills to help address the crisis, including one to grant emergency authority to a nutritional program for low income families called WIC (Women, Infants and Children) to address recalls and supply chain disruptions. According to Pelosi, roughly half of infant formula sold across the U.S. is purchased with WIC benefits, which limit the types of formulas recipients can buy.
“It is unconscionable and tragic that, right now, families cannot find safe, affordable baby formula to keep their children healthy and growing,” Pelosi wrote to her colleagues.