Biden steps in to fix the baby formula crisis, but how did we get to this point?

empty shelf of baby formula at a store
A nearly empty baby formula display shelf is seen at CVS pharmacy in Falls Church, Virginia, United States. Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The U.S. baby formula shortage has reached a critical point. With the out-of-stock rate for baby formula topping 43% this month, empty shelves have left parents struggling to feed their children and at least two babies have been hospitalized, CNN reports

The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it would invoke the Defense Production Act to ramp up formula production. But Northeastern experts say this is a late response to a crisis that is causing incalculable harm to the nation’s families—and that it should have been prevented.

How did we get to this point? It all started with COVID-19, says Nada Sanders, a distinguished professor at Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. The pandemic, along with the war in Ukraine, caused supply chain issues that led to some baby formula ingredients and packaging materials becoming less available.

“Then you throw in an event that’s pretty typical: A plant shuts down,” she says. 

That plant was an Abbott Nutrition facility in Sturgis, Michigan. In February, the baby formula production plant was shut down following two deaths and four hospitalizations that were linked to bacterial contamination. Some of the formula that was produced at the plant was also recalled

Sanders describes the shutdown as something that happens in supply chains “all the time.” But when combined with the already weakened supply chain, and with the fact that Abbott is one of only four major players that “essentially control and monopolize this industry,” she says, the shutdown created a crisis.

Distinguished Professor Nada Sanders Jamie Ladge, Patrick F. & Helen C. Walsh Research Professor, Management and Organizational Development, and Stephen Flynn, director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University.
Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University and Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The impact of the shortage is incalculable, but it’s likely tremendous, Sanders says. And while the news media has covered instances of babies being hospitalized, Sanders points out that we have no data on how many children are being affected without them going to the hospital. 

We can’t calculate the mental toll this situation has had on families who rely on formula, either. 

“It’s yet another added layer of what I call the ‘mental load,’ ” says Jamie Ladge, associate professor in the Management and Organizational Development Group of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. 

Ladge refers to the emotional toll that parenting takes on families—from finding childcare, to keeping kids safe from COVID-19, to arranging feedings and going back to work. 

“I just can’t even imagine that on top of all the juggling, that you have to worry about food shortages and getting your children fed,” she says. “I think it’s a really difficult time to be not just a working parent but particularly a parent of young children.” 

Moreover, some families may be disproportionately affected by the shortage. The baby formula deficit is not evenly distributed across the country, Sanders says, and the situation is worse in some states, including Kentucky and Tennessee, than others. 

Plus, those who use the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to get baby formula already had limited options. Some states only buy from certain manufacturers for the program, meaning WIC users usually can only use one type of formula, Sanders says. 

In response to the shortage, many states have loosened these restrictions, but some states, like New York, still won’t allow WIC families to use different brands.

There is reason to hope that the crisis will be resolved soon, however. The Defense Production Act is prioritizing the production of baby formula ingredients, CNBC reports. It also means the U.S. Department of Defense will use military plans to transport formula and bypass normal trade routes, Sanders says, to help get formula to the places that need it the most. The House also passed two bills to address the issue this week, NBC News reports.

Invoking the DPA is a rare move that points to the direness of the situation, says Stephen Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern. He says Biden’s decision to use the DPA to address a food shortage is unprecedented. 

“It is a big deal,” he says. 

The DPA, which was passed in 1950, was intended for wartime, and for the federal government to step into the marketplace for the sake of national security, he says. “[Invoking it] doesn’t happen very often at all. It’s the first time it’s been used in a food supply-like way.” 

In this case, he says, it was necessary. 

“In this instance it really is the right thing to do. It should help somewhat,” Flynn says. 

What concerns him is that the situation got to this point in the first place. When the Abbott plant shut down, there should have been contingencies in place to predict and prevent a crisis months in advance, in the same way we plan for hurricane season, Flynn says. “Nobody was doing that until it reached the state of crisis that we’re in right now,” he says.

The federal intervention, then, is a last resort that is indicative of lackluster planning. “When the President has to be the crisis manager for something like this, the system has failed,” Flynn says.

Regardless of the President’s involvement, it will still take time to resolve the issue. “Supply chains are like a wave,” Sanders says. She estimates that the immediacy of the issue may wear off in the next few weeks. 

In the long term, though, she hopes that this crisis will serve as a wakeup call for the baby formula industry and producers of other essential items. The DPA may help, she says, by incentivizing more companies to start producing formula. “I am hopeful that we have more players,” she says. “We may end up with more companies so we don’t have this really centralized production process.”

Ladge sees the potential for a small silver lining as well. “At least it calls attention to these [parenting] challenges,” Ladge says. “It calls attention to why parents are experiencing such a significant amount of burnout and stress.”

But for Flynn, the biggest takeaway is that safeguards should have been put in place to protect the most vulnerable members of the U.S. population—babies. 

“What’s more critical than infant formula?” he says.

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