This week, James Comer and MAGA Oversight Republicans are launching an investigation into the government’s response to infant formula shortages over the past year. Republicans have spent the past year exploiting economic hardship for political gain. Instead of working with the Biden administration to alleviate the crisis, Republicans tried to leverage the shortages ahead of the midterm elections, blaming President Biden and falsely accusing him of creating a “surplus” for migrants in an effort to tie-in right-wing grievances about the southern border. Now, Comer claims that the FDA response and subsequent oversight has been “superficial,” even though multiple investigations across the executive branch have resulted in the agency being restructured. Oversight Republicans have invited a former FDA administrator who promptly resigned after an outside review to testify—rather than the industry executives responsible for supply chain and safety failures. Even Comer’s own GOP colleagues are skeptical.
Comer’s Own Colleagues Are Skeptical Of His Role In Infant Formula Oversight. When Comer announced a hearing on the infant formula shortage, even his own colleagues were skeptical. Rep. Brett Guthrie, a fellow Kentuckian who leads the Energy & Commerce subcommittee typically responsible for investigating such matters, expressed doubt about Oversight Republicans’ plans: “We just want to make sure that we coordinate what they investigate and if we need to move forward with legislation. […] I’m not sure Lisa McClain’s experience. I know she’s a grandmother, and I don’t know if she had any personal experience with that and wants to investigate it. So I think it’s good that we get all the information we can, we just want to make sure that what they find out, if it needs to be translated into legislation, that we do that.”
An Outside Review of the FDA Recommended Increased Funding To Prevent Future Disasters, But MAGA Republicans Are Calling For Spending Cuts. The outside review recommended that the FDA needs increased program funding to address lingering issues: “Additional funding would help FDA bolster its information technology. […] For example, there are multiple systems for the public and other stakeholders to submit product safety and quality complaints and the disconnect between these systems contributed, in part, to FDA’s delayed response to the outbreak of illness from infant formula.” However, budget plans released by the Freedom Caucus—whose members hold 38% of the GOP seats on the Oversight Committee—would cap discretionary spending for agencies like the FDA at current levels for ten years, suggesting the agency was nothing but a “wasteful, woke, and weaponized federal bureaucracy.”
Summer 2022: Republicans Tried To Leverage Infant Formula Shortages Ahead of the Midterm Elections, Blaming President Biden. In early 2022, consumers began facing shortages of infant formula across the country as a result of supply disruptions and a safety recall. Instead of working with the Biden administration to alleviate the crisis, House Republicans seized the opportunity to blame the shortages squarely on President Biden and his administration.
- Trump-Era Import Restrictions Exacerbated Formula Shortages, Strengthened . Some supply chain vulnerabilities can be traced back to the Trump administration’s trade policies. Specifically, former President Trump’s re-negotiation of NAFTA imposed hefty importation restrictions on baby formula, ceasing all US imports of Canadian formula by 2021. Longstanding bans on importing formula from top trading partners in Europe and Asia remained in place, and just 2% of the infant formula consumed in the US was being imported by 2022. Trump’s policies made the domestic infant formula supply much more vulnerable to market manipulation by the two companies that controlled around 80% of the baby formula market: “Any disruption to one of their products will be magnified…A few companies in the market relying on the same sources creates a much more fragile supply chain.”
Republicans Falsely Accused The Biden Administration of Creating A Formula “Surplus” For Migrants Amidst Shortages. As the Biden administration worked to alleviate shortages, MAGA Republicans spread a false conspiracy in an effort to tie-in right-wing grievances about immigration and border policy, suggesting that the federal government was exacerbating domestic shortages by creating a “surplus” of baby formula for migrants. Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) was among the first to push false narratives about the government response, tweeting a photo of full shelves at the Ursula Processing Center at the U.S. border alongside a photo of a grocery store in Florida: “Formula is scarce. This is what America last looks like.” Within a few days, right-wing media and politicians turned the story into a full-blown conspiracy theory centered around the Biden administration. GOP conference chair Elise Stefanik (R-NY) tweeted, “This is not a Third World country. This should never happen in the United States of America.” Fox News ran segments accusing the Biden administration of “feeding illegal babies ahead of American babies.” Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) accused President Biden of “turning a blind eye to parents across America.” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) tweeted, “Just heard from a border patrol agent that, “we have more baby formula than we could ever use. Maybe time to share surpluses with states like Texas and Tennessee that are heavily impacted?”
- The Facts: A Federal Consent Decree Requires Border Agents to Stock Formula For Migrant Infants and Children. In accordance with a Clinton-era class-action settlement known as the Flores consent decree, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is required to provide migrant infants and children access to formula and baby food. The Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations have all abided by the requirement, and a Trump administration effort to end the policy was blocked by courts in 2019.
- May 2022: President Biden Announced Imports, Rebates, FTC Crackdown, and WIC Expansion to Address Shortages. “The Biden administration announced a series of regulatory moves to get baby formula onto store shelves more quickly. They’re pushing the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on profiteering, ensuring parents are able to use federal benefits on a wider range of formula products under WIC, a program that aids mothers, infants, and children. The White House is also pushing agencies to increase imports of baby formula from abroad, which currently represents only about 2% of the formula consumed in the US.” [Business Insider, 5/12/22]
- June—October 2022: The Biden Administration Airlifted Millions of Pounds Of Formula From Overseas. In response to the shortages, President Biden temporarily eased federal import regulations on infant formula through November 2022. Further, the administration launched an effort named “Operation Fly Formula” to airlift millions of pounds of powdered formula from overseas. By October, Operation Fly Formula had completed 74 flights carrying around 98 million bottle-equivalents of infant formula from Europe, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand.
Comer Falsely Claims FDA’s Internal Oversight Has Been “Superficial.” Last week, Oversight Chair Comer wrote to an FDA official, claiming he had concerns that the government oversight response was “a superficial attempt—rather than a real effort—to bring accountability and make meaningful changes.” However, multiple executive agencies have launched a robust oversight operation into the formula shortages:
- The FDA Commissioned An Outside Review and Restructured Accordingly. In mid-May 2022, the FDA launched an internal investigation into delays in reporting safety concerns at the Michigan plant owned by Abbott Labs, which controlled 40% of the market. By July, the agency commissioned an outside review by the Reagan-Udall Foundation, which concluded that cultural and structural weaknesses within the FDA, alongside statutory data sharing limitations, led to slow decision-making. In response to the feedback, FDA officials restructured the entire human foods division.
- The Department of Justice Launched A Criminal Probe Into Formula Shortages. In January 2023, the Department of Justice opened a criminal probe into the Michigan plant closure that precipitated the widespread shortages. The Department of Justice has been actively involved in the response to formula shortages since May 2022, when the DOJ filed a consent decree with Abbott Labs on behalf of the FDA to clean up the Michigan plant and restart production.
Former Deputy Commissioner, Office of Food Policy & Response, U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Trump-Era Executive Frank Yiannas Resigned From The FDA After He Overlooked Safety Concerns, Mounted Slow Response to Whistleblower Infant Formula Concerns. A former Walmart food safety executive, Yiannas joined the FDA as a deputy commissioner during the Trump administration where he led the agency’s food policy and response team. Under his watch, the agency overlooked a bacterial outbreak at a Michigan infant formula plant owned by Abbott Labs. Former employees had reported safety violations, falsifications of records, and cover-ups to FDA officials in October 2021, expressing concern about dangerous practices as far back as 2019—but the agency took months to respond. The FDA finally inspected and shuttered the plant in early 2022, which precipitated the ongoing shortage. Yiannas was at the center of these investigations, and the agency was reportedly hampered by tensions between him and other senior FDA officials. Following an internal investigation and an outside review, Yiannas resigned from his post effective February 2023.