What Mike Lee says will fix the baby formula shortage

Sen. Mike Lee, who helped pass the Formula Act, says more federal regulations need to be lifted to help put baby formula back on American shelves.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) A limited supplies sign is displayed on the baby formula shelf at a grocery store Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in Salt Lake City. Utah Sen. Mike Lee hopes the Formula Act — a bill he sponsored in the Senate last month that was signed into law by President Joe Biden on July 21, 2022 — will help alleviate the national formula shortage.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee says importing more foreign baby formula could help fix the domestic shortage that has left grocery store shelves lacking for months, but it’s only a start.

Congress and President Joe Biden made efforts last month, partially led by Lee, to pass legislation that would lift tariffs on formula imports as a way to encourage foreign manufacturers to sell and ship baby food to the United States.

“Formula is subject to costly tariffs, which disincentivize importation of formula,” Lee’s office said in a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune. “As a result, 98% of our formula supply is produced domestically. This bill eliminates certain tariffs on infant formula to incentivize companies abroad to increase importation.”

The Formula Act had massive bipartisan support in the House, which passed the bill 421-2, and the Senate, where Lee asked for and received a unanimous vote of support. Utah’s all-Republican congressional delegations supported the bill.

The law, signed by Biden on July 21, temporarily suspends tariffs on formula imported to the United States for the remainder of the year.

According to a news release from House sponsor Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer, tariffs on formula from countries without a Free Trade Agreement increase the cost of formula by 27% on average.

“Suspending tariffs on the importation of infant formula and relieving parents of steep price increases is a critical step to ending the infant formula shortage,” Blumenauer said in the statement. “This crisis requires a whole of government response. The Biden Administration has taken important steps to increase supply and I applaud the FDA’s actions to import more formula. I am thrilled that Congress has moved to temporarily suspend tariff barriers so families across the country can access affordable formula.”

Utah’s Lee called for more action from the federal government.

“This bill is only one step,” Lee’s office said in the statement. “We strongly feel that further reforms to (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) and (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s) regulations are required to increase the supply of formula.”

Lee’s office said imported formula brands are already hitting shelves and that the FDA “has communicated to us that there has been a significant increase in formula producers seeking enforcement discretion to import formula.”

The ongoing formula shortage is largely the result of supply chain issues. In February, Abbott Nutrition had to close a production facility in Michigan after concerns the formula was contaminated.

Market research firm IRI Worldwide, which tracks inventory in thousands of stores across the country, indicated that the amount of baby formula in stock dropped from June to July, Bloomberg reported. The research firm also found Utah – which has one of the highest fertility rates in the country, according to the CDC – was among the states hardest hit.

Utah’s representatives in the U.S. House voted against a $28 million supplemental relief package in May that aimed to increase the FDA’s regulatory capacity, which proponents of the bill said would support formula production. At the time, the four Utah congressmen voiced their concerns that the bill would not properly address the shortages.

In May, Biden used the Defense Production Act to speed up domestic production.