Only Staggering Incompetence Could’ve Made Baby Formula Shortage Possible

Only Staggering Incompetence Could’ve Made Baby Formula Shortage Possible

Governments can, and frequently do, fail. Sometimes, the failures are relatively mild – long lines at the local DMV, potholes that never seem to get fixed or losing letters in the mail.

That last example recently had its moment in the spotlight…in a way that exposed how governments can fail in very important, and potentially life-threatening ways. 

It began with a whistleblower report sent to the Food and Drug Administration () alleging a number of health issues at a baby formula manufacturing facility. The report was duly entered into the FDA’s internal mail system and…apparently disappeared. For four months. As The Washington Post reported, the results of this long delay were horrifying:

…one infant had already died and two others were hospitalized after consuming formula from the plant — all while other top FDA officials less-versed in food safety had elected not to send new inspectors to the plant in Sturgis, Mich. As another infant death was linked to Abbott-produced formula, the plant closed down and a recall was issued, sparking a critical national shortage of baby formula.

“It wasn’t sent to me, and it wasn’t shared with me internally. How does this happen?” [FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response Frank] Yiannas, who previously ran the food safety program for Walmart, the nation’s largest grocer, told The Washington Post. “There were early signals, and in any safety profession you want to take those seriously to stop the domino effect. That didn’t happen.”

The knock-on effects of the stray report quickly ballooned into a nationwide shortage of baby formula, complete with images of European nations airlifting formula to the U.S.

Behind the airlift images, however, is a longer, low-intensity story of government failure that implicates U.S. trade policy and yet more problems at the FDA. First up, the tariffs that made the domestic market so fragile:

The U.S. imposes high tariffs—up to 17.5%—on imported baby formula. Formula is also subject to a mechanism called a tariff-rate quota, where additional duties can be placed on goods once total imports pass a certain level.

Politically-motivated protectionism has real-life consequences. Just don’t expect the current regime to address the problem:

As of now, the has not mentioned tariff relief as a measure to encourage imports and has instead focused on the regulatory side of the equation.

And let’s not forget government’s long-running bureaucratic war against European baby formula:

Last year, for example, the FDA forced a recall of approximately 76,000 units of infant formula manufactured in Germany and imported into the United States. The formula wasn’t a health or safety risk to babies but merely failed to meet the FDA’s labeling standards. In this case, the products were banned for not informing parents that they contained less than 1 milligram of iron per 100 calories.

In a separate incident last year, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) bragged in a press release about seizing 588 cases of baby formula that violated other FDA regulations. The seized formulas were made by HiPP and Holle brands, which are based in Germany and the Netherlands, respectively. Both are widely and legally sold in Europe and around the rest of the world.

Eventually, and at great cost, the formula shortage will get sorted. But the measures put in place to ease those shortages are temporary – meaning that once the crisis passes, we’ll be right back to having a market that’s distorted and fragile.

In other words, the formula market will break again.

All because of government failure.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of American Liberty News.

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