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The U.S. needs a government that fights against "oligarchs who continue to win their fights at the expense of everyday people," Dakotah Lilly, an independent analyst, said.
On Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden met virtually with baby formula manufacturers to discuss how to accelerate domestic production of baby formula and ramp up imports of the product, all aimed at resolving the months-long shortage affecting families across the nation.
The president conceded to reporters after the roundtable that it was not until April that he was aware of how seriously the shutdown of one plant of the nation's major baby formula producers would affect the supply of the product.
Representatives of the baby formula industry hosted by the White House, however, told the president that they knew how bad the shortage could get almost immediately after the closure of Abbott Nutrition's production facility in Sturgis, Michigan, in February due to safety concerns.
Those closely following the ongoing crisis have said that the shortage was caused by the pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions and exacerbated by Abbott's problem, but it also reflects the deep-rooted dysfunction of the U.S. economic and political system where public interests are sacrificed as a result of industrial monopoly, government-business collusion, and partisan politics.
In February, Abbott shut down its Sturgis plant and recalled three brands of powdered infant formula produced in the facility, after four babies who consumed the formula were hospitalized with bacterial infections, with two of them dead.
For the week ending May 8, out-of-stock rate nationwide for baby formula hit 43 percent, up 13 percentage points from April, according to statistics from Datasembly, which analyzes about 11,000 stores. Grocery chains have been placing caps on the maximum number of cans of baby formula each customer can purchase.
Compounding the situation were reports of price gouging. The average price of the most popular baby formula products increased as much as 18 percent over the last 12 months. The Biden administration has been accused of taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the rolling crisis.
A whistleblower report raising the alarm of contamination at Abbott Nutrition's Sturgis plant was submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Oct. 20, 2021, U.S. House Representative Rosa DeLauro said in a press release recently.
"The FDA did not interview the whistleblower until late December 2021. According to news reports, FDA did not inspect the plant in person until January 31, 2022," DeLauro said. It was only until mid-May that the FDA finally put out a statement encouraging the "importation of safe infant formula and other flexibilities to further increase availability."
On May 16, Abbott and the FDA both confirmed they had entered into a consent decree in which both sides agreed on a path forward for the Sturgis factory to restart production while safety protocols are obeyed during operation.
Abbott said in a statement that from the time the Sturgis facility reopens, "it will take six to eight weeks before product is available on shelves." In fact, the near-complete dependence on domestic production and the extreme concentration of the production chain are the very reasons why the baby formula industry in the United States is so prone to catastrophic shortage like the current one.
Just three companies, including Abbott Nutrition, control 95 percent of baby formula sales in the United States, according to Amanda Starbuck, a research director at the Food & Water Watch group, a Washington-headquartered non-governmental organization dedicated to food safety research.
"Why has our government allowed for... just three companies to control so much," Starbuck was recently quoted by the AFP news agency as saying. She argued for the passage of "comprehensive antitrust legislation in order to better scrutinize companies, to break up companies that have gotten so big that they're abusing their market power."
Dakotah Lilly, an independent analyst, recently wrote in an article carried by Russia Today that U.S. baby formula shortage "is a symptom of a broken system."
Questioning the FDA's delayed response to the whistleblower report and the absence of charges that should have been levied against those responsible for the crisis, Lilly said the shortage exposed the fact that "we have a government and a corporate world that share one bed and one bank account and work closely together to ensure that regular people continue to be crushed and squeezed as long as their profits are maintained."
The United States needs a government that fights "against established economic power and oligarchs who continue to win their fights at the expense of everyday people," he added.
For years, it has become too customary in the United States that any issue, as long as it has a contradictory nature, can be weaponized by politicians to attack their opponents and serve their own partisan interests. The same now happened to baby formula's supply chain, which has devastated families across the nation.
Calling the baby formula shortage "outrageous and unacceptable," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in a statement "this problem has been developing in slow motion for several months now, but the Biden administration has been characteristically sluggish and halting in response."
Initiated by the Democrats, the House passed two bills on May 18, one of them authorizing US$28 million in emergency funding to the FDA to alleviate the current shortfall and head off future shortages.
The legislation still awaits the approval of the Senate and its fate is uncertain. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Shumer, Democrat of New York, said his chamber will try to pass something through a unanimous consent, which could be blocked by the objection of any single senator.