The Democratic-led House approved two bills Wednesday addressing the baby-formula shortage as lawmakers look to show progress on what has become a deeply concerning development for many families.
One bill with wide bipartisan support passed by a vote of 414-9. It would give the U.S. agriculture secretary the ability to issue a narrow set of waivers in the event of a supply disruption. The goal is to give participants in an assistance program commonly known as WIC the ability to use vouchers to purchase formula from any producer rather than be limited to one brand that, as the recent experience has shown, may be unavailable. The WIC program accounts for about half of infant-formula sales in the U.S.
“I want to say to the mom struggling that we hear you in Congress and you do not need to handle this on your own. We are working to find you a solution,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jahana Hayes, a Democrat from Connecticut.
The other measure, a $28 million emergency spending bill to boost resources at the Food and Drug Administration, passed by a mostly party-line vote of 231-192, and its fate in the Senate, where passage requires 60 votes under the filibuster rule (and there are 48 Democrats and two typically like-minded independents in the chamber), is unclear.
“This bill just continues the Democrats’ strategy of throwing money at the same bureaucrats who caused the crisis and who have not made its solution a priority,” said Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the Democratic chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said the money would increase FDA staffing to boost inspections of domestic and international suppliers, prevent fraudulent products from getting to store shelves and acquire better data on the marketplace.
“It is essential that we ensure the federal government has the resources it needs to get baby formula back on the shelves,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat.
Abbott’s voluntary recall was triggered by four illnesses reported in babies who had consumed powdered formula from its plant. All four infants were hospitalized with a rare type of bacterial infection and two died.
After a six-week inspection, FDA investigators published a list of problems in March, including lax safety and sanitary standards and a history of bacterial contamination in several parts of the plant. Under Monday’s agreement, Abbott must regularly consult with an outside safety expert to restart and maintain production.
The suburban Chicago–based Abbott (NYS:ABT) has emphasized that its products have not been directly linked to the bacterial infections in children. Samples of the bacteria found at its plant did not match the strains collected from two babies by federal investigators.
FDA officials pushed back on that reasoning Monday on a call with reporters — for the first time publicly addressing the company’s argument. FDA staffers noted that they were unable to collect bacterial strains from two of the four patients, limiting their chances of finding a match.