Senate passes Stabenow bill to address baby formula shortage

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The Senate passed a bipartisan bill Thursday evening that would permanently loosen regulations around which baby formulas can be purchased under the federal low-income assistance program for women, children and infants.

The bill, led by Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow in the Senate, passed the House on Wednesday by a vote of 414-9 and now heads to President Joe Biden's desk.

U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, gives her remarks during a press conference at Delta Manor senior apartments.

It gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture more flexibility during a product recall, supply-chain disruption or other crisis so families aren't restricted by what brand or kind of infant formula they may purchase, according to a bill summary. 

Typically, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program relies on exclusive contracts with formula manufacturers like Abbott, whose February recall for products made at its Michigan plant has exacerbated a shortage of formula in some regions of the country.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has encouraged states to temporarily expand the types of formula that qualify for assistance under the WIC program while families continue to struggle to find supply, but Stabenow noted that Vilsack is acting under short-term authorities due to the pandemic public health emergency. 

"We’re not sure how much longer (the emergency authority) is going to be there," said Stabenow, who chairs the Senate Agriculture committee whose jurisdiction includes the WIC program. 

"This makes permanent changes and gives authority to the secretary to do whatever he needs to do to make sure baby formula is available and the rules of WIC don’t get in the way."

Stabenow said legislation also would require companies that receive a WIC contract to demonstrate that they have a plan to respond to a baby formula recall, including how they would prevent shortages. Abbott is the contracted WIC supplier for more than 30 states.

"This is very serious in terms of what happened at the plant in terms of contamination," Stabenow said of Abbott. "Also, then originally, in my opinion, FDA did not respond as fast as they should have," she added, referring to the agency's delayed response to an October whistleblower report. 

Baby formula is displayed on the shelves of a grocery store in Carmel, Ind., Tuesday, May 10, 2022.

The House this week also approved $28 million in emergency funding for the Food and Drug Administration to address the formula shortage, but that legislation is not as bipartisan with a vote of 231-192. The Senate has not yet considered that package.

Several congressional committees have set hearings for the next week to investigate the formula shortage.

The Biden administration said Thursday evening that it was preparing to fly its first shipment of baby formula from overseas as part of its new "Operation Fly Formula" program, transporting Nestlé S.A. formula from Zurich, Switzerland to Plainfield, Indiana.

The White House said the shipments would transport the equivalent of up to 1.5 million 8-ounce bottles of three formulas that are in short supply in the United State.S. because of the Abbott plant shutdown: Alfamino Infant, Alfamino Junior and Gerber Good Start Extensive HA — hypoallergenic formulas for babies with a cow’s milk protein allergy.