Nearly a year after the U.S. infant formula shortages began, parents are still struggling to find formula on store shelves, or face purchase limits when they do find their preferred brand. As of mid-November, 34 percent of parents in households with infants had trouble finding formula, U.S. census data show.
Yet despite the hungry babies and ongoing crisis, dairy lobbyists are now telling Congress it’s time to end the emergency waivers issued on foreign brands imported to help alleviate shortages. With the waivers set to expire at the end of this year, the National Milk Producers Federation is asking lawmakers to oppose any effort to extend the waivers, subjecting foreign companies to high tariffs come Jan. 1, 2023. The increased taxes would then likely be passed onto American consumers and/or slow imports overall.
“Given that the temporary production shortfall that gripped American families in need of formula earlier this year has abated, we urge Congress to ensure that the unique, unilateral tariff benefits granted to our trading partners under the Formula Act and the Bulk Infant Formula to Retail Shelves Act end as scheduled at the close of this year,” said NMPF Chairman and CEO Jim Mulhern in the letter.
As Gabriella Beaumont‐Smith, policy analyst at the Cato Institute, has pointed out, suspending the tariffs was one of the federal government’s more effective “band-aids” at the height of the crisis. “Imports overall increased by almost 4‑fold between January and September 2022,” Beaumont-Smith writes.
The larger issue at play here is that between trade restrictions and the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) largely contested labeling and ingredient regulations, the government has been making it difficult for moms to purchase European baby formula long before the crisis began.
When the country’s largest baby formula plant shut down and pandemic supply chains imploded, the government’s burdensome regulations on moms and babies were exposed, and the FDA quickly scrambled to loosen restrictions to allow more foreign formula into the country. As I reported earlier this year, many moms prefer European formulas over American brands for a variety of reasons but have often faced obstacles getting their babies’ food, like having orders of formula seized by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
As I wrote in May:
Some perceive European brands to be higher quality than American formulas, although medical experts disagree on whether this is true. The European equivalent of the FDA does not allow any amount of trace pesticides to be present in their milk, so the foundation of the formula is coming from cows producing a higher quality of milk, which appeals to today’s American customers often in search of “clean” ingredients.
With that context in mind, it makes sense why American dairy farmers would oppose the American mom’s preference for the products of European cows. On the other hand, it doesn’t excuse Big Dairy to lie about the U.S. formula shortage having “abated.” It also speaks to just how far the effects of government regulation can reach, now that the dairy industry realizes how much they benefitted from a few seemingly innocuous tariff and formula labeling restrictions.
The National Milk Producers Federation is of course welcome to lobby on behalf of its own pocketbooks, but it should be shamed every step of the way as long as its efforts are keeping parents up at night wondering if they have enough formula to make it through the month.