A shortage of baby formula has provoked misleading partisan claims that suggest President Joe Biden is responsible for the “bare shelves.” But the shortage has been caused by a recall and plant shutdown by a major manufacturer and ongoing supply-chain issues due to the pandemic.
Baby formula has become increasingly unavailable in the U.S. over the last 10 months, reaching an out-of-stock rate of 43% for the week ending May 8, according to data collected by Datasembly.
That rate had remained below 10% from the beginning of 2021 through July, and rose sharply after a product recall in February by Abbott Nutrition, according to the data.
Although the problem had been building for some time, it became politicized in the last week, prompting President Joe Biden to release a plan on May 12 for what his administration will do to address the shortage.
That plan includes easing regulations on the production of formula, cracking down on price gouging and importing more formula.
The U.S. shortage has been driven largely by a recall from Abbott Nutrition, a major manufacturer of formula, and ongoing supply-chain issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to experts.
But many high-profile conservatives have suggested that Biden is to blame for the shortage.
For example, Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, shared a Fox Business story on the shortage that featured an image of sparsely filled shelves of infant formula and added the message: “Bare shelves Biden.” The Fox Business story itself cited two other issues, saying “the baby formula shortage began with ongoing supply chain issues but has escalated in recent weeks due to recalls by formula manufacturer Abbott Laboratories.”
And the House Republican Conference shared a similar image from a Fox News on-air segment, adding: “Welcome to Joe Biden’s America.”
Partisans with large social media followings, like David Harris Jr., also weighed in, referring to the shortage and calling the Biden administration “absolutely criminal.”
But a single politician or administration isn’t causing the shortage. Here we’ll explain what’s led to the current situation.
Recall Following Illness and Deaths of Infants
Between September and January, four infants became ill with Cronobacter, a bacterial infection, and two of them died. The Food and Drug Administration is still investigating.
The babies had reportedly consumed powdered formula from Abbott’s Sturgis, Michigan facility.
On Feb. 17, Abbott voluntarily recalled its powdered formulas. Abbott contracts with a majority of state programs for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly called WIC, which is the largest purchaser of baby formula in the U.S., according to a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Another USDA report from the same year found that the highly concentrated formula market was dominated by three manufacturers, and Abbott held the largest market share, at 43%.
The FDA has now agreed to let Abbott release some products to those who need “urgent, life-sustaining supplies of certain specialty and metabolic formulas on a case-by-case basis.” Abbott said in a May 11 statement that its Sturgis facility could be up and running in two weeks with FDA approval.
Strict Regulations on Baby Formula
“Since the shutdown of Abbott Nutrition’s Sturgis facility … the remaining baby formula manufacturers have struggled to quickly increase production because their operations were planned and designed to produce a steady level of product based on their pre-production projections of consumer demand,” Kevin Lyons, a professor at Rutgers Business School with expertise in supply chain management, told FactCheck.org in an email.
He explained that in other industries, manufacturers can adjust their output based on consumer demand, but baby formula manufacturers can’t do that because their projections and the raw materials they need for production must be planned well in advance.
Also, Kaitlin Wowak, professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, noted in an email to us that baby formula is subject to heightened oversight by the FDA.
Because of that, “not just any company can start producing baby formula in the short-term,” she said. “When we needed more [personal protective equipment], any company producing related products could quickly pivot their operations and start producing masks or other PPE, but that is not the case with baby formula as the regulations around baby formula are much tighter.”
The strict regulations on producing formula are designed to protect consumers – who, in this case, are babies. The Infant Formula Act of 1980 was enacted because a “major manufacturer” in 1978 made a change to its formula that “resulted in infant formula products that contained an inadequate amount of chloride, a nutrient essential for growth and development in infants,” according to the FDA.
Pandemic Supply-Chain Challenges
Both Lyons and Wowak also pointed to supply-chain impediments due to the pandemic as a contributing factor to the current formula shortage.
Supply-chain problems include raw material and labor shortages, Lyons said, as well as suppliers and consumers making panic purchases.
Greys Sošić, professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, told us in an email, “At the moment, [the] pandemic has caused significant issues in a number of supply chains, baby formulas being one of them, so we are experiencing unusual shortages or delays for numerous items.”
She also noted that the situation likely escalated following Abbott’s recall because of the company’s role as the exclusive supplier for more than half of the WIC agencies.
So, the current shortage of baby formula is due to a recall from a company that handles a large share of the market, paired with ongoing supply-chain issues.
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here. Facebook has no control over our editorial content.
Datasembly. Press release. “Nation-wide Out-Of-Stock is now at 43% for the week ending May 8th.” 10 May 2022.
White House. Press release. “FACT SHEET: President Biden Announces Additional Steps to Address Infant Formula Shortage.” 12 May 2022.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Abbott Voluntarily Recalls Powder Formulas Manufactured at One Plant.” 17 Feb 2022.
Dumas, Breck. “Baby formula shortage hits ‘crisis’ level, sparking panic in parents across US.” Fox Business. Updated 10 May 2022.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “FDA Investigation of Cronobacter Infections: Powdered Infant Formula (February 2022).” Updated 11 May 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Cronobacter and Powdered Infant Formula Investigation.” Updated 12 May 2022.
National WIC Association. “WIC Providers Respond to Abbott Recall of Powder Infant Formula.” 23 Feb 2022.
Oliveira, Victor. U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Winner Takes (Almost) All: How WIC Affects the Infant Formula Market.” 1 Sep 2011.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “FDA Takes Important Steps to Improve Supply of Infant and Specialty Formula Products.” 10 May 2022.
Abbott. Press release. “Abbott Provides Infant Formula Update.” 11 May 2022.
Lyons, Kevin. Professor, Rutgers Business School. Email to FactCheck.org. 11 May 2022.
Wowak, Kaitlin. Professor, University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Email to FactCheck.org 12 May 2022.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Questions & Answers for Consumers Concerning Infant Formula.” Updated 7 Mar 2018.
H.R.6940. An act to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to strengthen the authority under that Act to assure the safety and nutrition of infant formulas, and for other purposes. As enacted 26 Sep 1980.
Sošić, Greys. Professor, University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. Email to FactCheck.org. 11 May 2022.