Emergency funding legislation aimed at addressing the infant formula shortage is facing rocky terrain in the Senate, as Republican leaders are reluctant to say if they’ll support the Democratic-backed legislation that swiftly passed the House earlier this week.
Senate Democrats are pushing for speedy action on the bill, calling it a critical first step by Congress in addressing the nationwide shortage.
But Republicans argue throwing more money at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not the solution.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, told The Hill on Thursday that it “may or may not serve to solve some long-term problems at FDA.”
He also expressed doubt about the impact it will have in the “upcoming weeks for people who need baby formula.”
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the top GOP member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, also said on Thursday that he’s doubtful the bill has the necessary backing from Republicans to secure its passage in the upper chamber.
As the formula shortage continues to dominate public interest, lawmakers and the Biden administration have been feeling the pressure to respond.
“I hear them [Republicans] all trying to blame Joe Biden for baby formula shortage, acting as if they’re compassionate,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “Well, we’ll give them a chance to show if they care about moms and kids.”
But the conditions that contributed to it have been building for months, if not years, and lawmakers are finding there is no easy fix.
The current shortage was triggered in part by supply chain stresses, but worsened when a single formula manufacturing plant in Michigan shut down in February.
Just four companies control more than 90 percent of the formula market, including Abbott Nutrition, which operated the Michigan plant. Democrats have decried the market consolidation, but are focused mainly on the immediate issue of getting formula back onto store shelves.
Abbott shut the facility down in February after it was linked to four infants who were hospitalized with a rare bacterial infection. The company also issued a voluntary recall of all formula brands made at the facility, after an FDA inspection found unsanitary conditions at the plant.
FDA has reached a preliminary agreement with Abbott to restart production at the plant, pending safety upgrades and certifications, though it could take up to eight additional weeks before any of that product is back on shelves.
Abbott said the FDA has not been able to definitively link its formula to the illnesses. The company said it has been making corrective improvements to address the FDA’s concerns.
The $28 million emergency funding infusion will give FDA “urgently needed resources to address the shortage,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the bill’s sponsor and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.
The legislation would beef up inspections of formula made at foreign plants and guard against any future shortages by ensuring the agency is prepared for supply chain disruptions.
FDA commissioner Robert Califf told a House panel that he requested the additional funding. If the money is appropriated, he said the agency will use the bulk of it to hire more inspectors.
Still, it’s unclear how quickly more inspectors would translate into additional supply.
Peter Pitts, who served as an associate commissioner at the FDA during the George W. Bush administration, said FDA needs more money to put towards “more robust inspections” for its food center.
But he said he doesn’t think the solution to the problem is “a one-time $28 million infusion.”
“This is going to have be an annual regular budget item within the FDA food center request … you have to hire people, and you don’t hire people for one year,” he said.
DeLauro acknowledged that FDA’s food safety division has long-standing deficiencies that need fixing, and money alone won’t solve the problem.
“We will work to strengthen the workforce focused on formula issues and increase FDA’s inspection staff. But … funding is not the only answer. This issue goes beyond funding and that has to deal with a structural program,” DeLauro said during a recent hearing.
A rare bipartisan bill passed both the House and Senate this week that permanently loosens restrictions on the government’s nutrition program for women, infants and children (WIC) to protect recipients during future crises.
But advocates and experts said it’s a small fix when much bigger reforms are needed.
“I think a piece of this puzzle that needs to be focused on is the kind of the culture and the structure of the current FDA foods program, and how that contributed to the situation that we’re in now,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports.
Ronholm, a former official in the Obama administration’s Department of Agriculture, said it’s unfortunate that formula shortages have become politicized.
“From a consumer standpoint, if you’re struggling to find supply and having to travel all over the place, you want to know that Congress and the agencies are doing whatever they can,” he said.
Some Senate Republicans are advocating for legislation introduced by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), which would waive a variety of FDA regulations and import tariffs in order to get formula onto shelves quickly.
But when asked about a potential Republican response, Blunt said he was encouraged by recent White House actions, like loosening import restrictions.
“We’re encouraging what the president, probably six months late, has finally decided to do, which is figure out how to fill the shortfall that the FDA should have known about since last fall,” he said.