Don't blame parents for the baby formula shortage, said Representative Morgan Griffith (R-Va. 9th District) during an investigative congressional hearing on the issue this Wednesday.
The ranking member of the House Committee on Energy & Commerce was responding to testimony from Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Robert M. Califf M.D., who said an increase in overall purchases from worried parents was partly behind the current lack of supply.
He referred to FDA data showing that the total volume of formula sales since May 8 increased 12 percent compared to the four weeks prior to a product recall from Abbott Nutrition. The recall came after an FDA investigation discovered unsanitary conditions at a Michigan plant, which led to concerns that Abbott's formula was behind a series of lethal bacterial infections in infants.
"This increase in consumption most likely represents heightened concern of parents and caregivers about shortages, leading to an understandable effort to purchase ahead to ensure adequate supply at home," Califf said.
Griffith pushed back against the idea that over-buying or stockpiling was contributing to the problem.
"I know it's not what you intended to say, but I think some could take the impression that, in part at least, you were blaming moms and dads who were scared that their children couldn't be fed and that they were overbuying," he said. "The answer is not that moms and dads are responsible for this problem. It's the manufacturers of the infant formula and the FDA."
The exchange highlighted the political sensitivity of blaming panic buying for product shortages, which have become a semi-regular occurrence throughout the pandemic.
While Califf agreed that the only solution to the current crisis is to "make sure shelves are stocked," his testimony complicates the narrative that a plant shutdown was the sole cause of the shortage.
Indeed, he pointed out that production has been relatively steady in recent months, due to other manufacturers ramping up their production in coordination with the federal government.
The FDA said Nestle increased the supply of baby formula by approximately 50 percent between March and April, and Reckitt increased its supply 30 percent this year.
Despite this boost in production, demand continued to surge. Now out-of-stock percentages are hitting new highs, and stores such as Target, CVS, and Walgreens are rationing their inventories.
As for the FDA's role in overseeing the Abbott plant, Califf said that the agency could have moved quicker, but said there was "no evidence of intentional delay or malfeasance."
He added that the agency was undergoing an internal review to improve its processes, and would be working to overhaul the "food" side of the Food and Drug Administration, as well as calling for more funding to support those efforts.
Griffith, meanwhile, last week voted against $28 million in emergency supplemental appropriations for the agency that were aimed at helping secure the supply of baby formula. He said the money would only go into the pockets of Washington, DC, bureaucrats.