Access to Baby Formula Act explained as nationwide shortage leaves parents scrambling

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(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden signed legislation Saturday aimed at protecting low-income families as the United States grapples with a nationwide baby formula shortage.

The Access to Baby Formula Act of 2022 ensures families can use benefits from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — also known as WIC — to buy formula products outside what is normally designated for the program during times of crisis.

The program purchases about half of all infant formula supply in the U.S., with some 1.2 million infants receiving formula through WIC.

Typically, each state relies on a contract with a single manufacturer to supply products for WIC participants. But a recall from Abbott, one of the nation’s largest manufacturers, highlighted flaws within the federal nutrition program.

“When we became aware of all of this we came together very quickly to do what we could,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said in remarks from the floor after the legislation passed, though she said she wished it would’ve never gotten to this point for families.

“The reality is that half of the baby formula in this country goes to moms and babies that are on a very important program that is called the Women, Infants, and Children’s program,” Stabenow continued. “We know that we’ve got to do anything humanly possible to take away any barrier available for them to get this important food for children.”

Now, the United States Department of Agriculture will have authority to amend WIC program rules during a shortage, recall or other emergencies and allow families to buy whatever products are available in the store.

The law also requires formula manufacturers that provide products for WIC participants to have a contingency plan for responding to shortages or recalls in the future.

Biden signed the baby formula bill into law during his five-day trip to Asia, according to the White House. He also signed a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine as Russia’s invasion stretches into its fourth month.

The Access to Baby Formula Act of 2022 had overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, passing the House in a 414-to-9 vote and the Senate via unanimous consent.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., celebrated the bipartisan moment in the chamber.

“It’s rare that we have unanimity in the Senate on important measures, and I wish we had more, but this is one of these important issues and I’m glad we’re acting with one voice,” said Schumer, calling the shortage “stuff of nightmares” for parents.

For the week ending May 15, nearly 45% of products in the U.S. were unavailable, according to the data tracking firm Datasembly, up slightly from the 43% out-of-stock rate reported the week ending May 8.

The House also tried to give $28 million in emergency assistance to the Food and Drug Administration to enhance safety inspections and prevent fraudulent products from getting into stores. But the bill failed to move forward in the Senate, as Republicans on Capitol Hill remain opposed to giving the agency more funds.

FDA chief Robert Califf was grilled by lawmakers this week on the agency’s response to the formula shortage. He said it will the situation is “gradually” getting better, but that it “will be a few weeks before we’re back to normal.”

ABC News’ Allison Pecorin contributed to this report.

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