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Guest Column: America’s Baby Formula Shortage Was ‘Made In Washington D.C.’

“Baby formula saved my daughter’s life …”

by CANDACE CARROLL || Baby formula saved my daughter’s life.

I was a brand new mom living near Clemson, SC. My baby, our first, was born with an undiagnosed tongue tie. She just couldn’t latch. Breastfeeding. Bottles. We worked with the nurses and consultants. We tried all the products, all the different techniques. But our little girl was drastically losing weight, and I was losing my grip. At her first check-up, our pediatrician – thank goodness – sent us to have her tongue tie clipped and taught us how to feed her with a syringe while it healed. Her weight stabilized, our crisis was averted, and she’s been growing like a weed for 7 years!

As stressful as that ordeal was for my family, I cannot imagine how much worse it must be for new moms today, facing the same issues and now a baby formula shortage.

The Biden administration has tried to say the crisis is not the federal government’s fault – which is both untrue and particularly unhelpful to parents scrambling to feed their newborns. This comes on top of a grinding inflation crisis, which has driven prices so high, so fast that Americans’ real wages actually fell in 2021. Just like the spiking inflation, the baby formula shortage was caused by bungling federal policy decisions.

Few in Washington will admit it, but this crisis is not a seasonal aberration or byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States government deliberately makes it difficult to produce, buy, and sell baby formula in this country.

For instance, we have long imposed a punitively high tariff of 17.5 percent on all formula imported from Europe. That rate escalates the more formula gets imported every year. Those tariffs jack up the price of imported formula for the jars that actually get here. But mostly it cuts demand, so prices for domestic formula stay high, too.

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This may seem to new moms like a “bug” in the system; but to Congress, it’s a feature. The tariffs serve no revenue-raising purpose — they’re just corporate welfare for the dairy industry and the small cohort of corporations that control the U.S. baby formula business. Meanwhile, the majority of all U.S. formula is bought and distributed through a federal welfare program that effectively mandates state-by-state monopolies.

Long before the current crisis, most formula was not sold at normal market prices. And formula suppliers were protected from competition by government cronyism. This made a handful of corporations a lot of money. But it made America’s baby formula market vulnerable for many years — like a leaky boat that can stay afloat in calm waters but founder in a storm.

In February, the storm started.

One of America’s four formula manufacturers, Abbott, issued a recall for thousands of units of formula for possible contamination after several babies fell ill — and two died — from a dangerous bacteria.

The Food and Drug Administration has also started seizing European formula imports for reasons that had nothing to do with its quality or content. EU-regulated formula meets the same safety and nutritional standards that ours must. But Washington has kept it off shelves because, for instance, one batch’s labels didn’t indicate that the formula contained “less than one milligram of iron per 100 calories.”


In a normal market, disruptions like this happen all the time. They are easily absorbed by consumer shifts toward competitors, more imports, increased production, etc. But an industry distorted by government and dominated by government-protected monopolies is not so resilient or flexible.     

Add in the past year’s historic inflation, squeezing South Carolinians and all Americans at the gas pump, the checkout counter, and rent checks, and what should have been a challenge exploded into a crisis.

New parents and their babies deserve better. In the short term, Congress and state and federal agencies must do everything they can to get families through this emergency and get more formula onto grocery store shelves.

In the long term, though, Washington needs to rethink its entire approach to the baby formula business. The tariffs need to come down. The single-supplier welfare programs need to be diversified. Regulations need to be rewritten to serve consumers and not corporations. Monopolies need to be broken up, and more competition — domestic and international — introduced to the market.

If politicians think that sounds difficult, let them explain that to the new dads frantically racing from Walmart to CVS to Piggly Wiggly for a jar of Similac, to new moms scouring Facebook groups for intel on where to find Enfamil, or to the 500 American babies born every day of this crisis with tongue-ties, like my daughter.

I’m sure they’d love to hear about it.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Candace Carroll is state director of Americans for Prosperity-South Carolina.

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