How the Federal Government is Making the Baby Formula Shortage Way Worse

A grave shortage of baby formula is hitting American families hard right now. Per CBS News, roughly 40% of the most popular baby formula products were out-of-stock as of April 24. This supply issue is leading to hoarding, rationing, and serious concern among American mothers.

“Can’t mothers just breastfeed?” If you’re a clueless, childless, male like me, you probably had the same thought. But it’s actually not that simple.

“It’s not a spigot,” Bethany Mandel, a prominent conservative writer and a mom of five, explained to me with a laugh. “It’s a really precarious ecosystem. There are a lot of women who have biological difficulties with it, whether they don’t produce enough milk, or they’re on a medication that’s contraindicated with breastfeeding… there’s a lot of those situations.”

Mandel also explained that sometimes women stop producing adequate amounts of breastmilk if they get pregnant again. What’s more, sometimes the natural process that prompts a mother’s body to produce milk falters when they return to work and spend more time away from their baby. She stressed that for mothers who rely on formula, the current shortage is a grave problem, forcing them into drastic measures as stores start rationing.

“If you have twins who are on ready-to-eat formula, you are just screwed,” Mandel lamented. “You’re just screwed. Even the moms whose babies can take normal formula are left driving around a lot, making a lot of orders, asking friends to keep an eye out. But for the moms with babies with really specific needs, it’s getting to be dire.”

Frustrated parents are, understandably, demanding answers from our elected officials. According to the New York Times, this shortage largely stems from an ongoing recall and contamination issue plaguing an Abbott manufacturing facility that has affected multiple popular formula products. However, the government is doing its part to make the shortage much, much worse due to all the idiotic economic policies it has on the books that hinder the market for baby formula.

As economist and free-trade advocate Scott Lincicome pointed out, the US has 18% tariff rates on imported formula. Basically, we put a tax on imported formula, needlessly making it more expensive and less accessible for American families.

And even beyond tariffs, the federal government, chiefly the Food and Drug Administration, goes out of its way to do everything it can to hamstring the importation of baby formula. According to the Times, it’s “one of the most tightly regulated food products in the US” and it’s “technically illegal” to import even safe, quality baby formula products from advanced European countries.

“Surely, protectionism isn’t the only reason for the current formula crisis, but it’s just-as-surely making things worse,” Lincicome told Reason.

There’s a pretty clear lesson here.

Free trade isn’t just good for consumers and a boon for economic growth. Having free trade leads to diversified supply lines, which breed resilience. Meanwhile, relying on just crony, protected domestic producers or one single foreign supplier breeds a dangerous reliance.

“America’s demand for baby formula has outpaced domestic supply. It’s exactly the type of situation where imports would help alleviate the domestic supply crunch and make American markets more resilient,” Reason’s Eric Boehm explained. “Unfortunately, American trade policy is doing exactly the opposite right now.”

“Tariffs and quotas—some that predate the Trump and Biden administrations, but others that were worsened in recent years—make it burdensome and costly to import the supplies that are now desperately needed,” Boehm continued. “Sometimes those imports aren’t allowed at all, for reasons that have nothing to do with health and safety.”

So, don’t blame the “free-market” or “capitalism” for the ongoing baby formula shortage that’s hurting families. The true blame lies with the big-government policies impeding the market from meeting Americans’ needs.

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Brad Polumbo
Brad Polumbo
Brad Polumbo is a libertarian-conservative journalist and co-founder of Based Politics. His work has been cited by top lawmakers such as Senator Rand Paul, Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Pat Toomey, Congresswoman Nancy Mace, Congressman Thomas Massie, and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, as well as by prominent media personalities such as Jordan Peterson, Sean Hannity, Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, and Mark Levin. Brad has also testified before the US Senate, appeared on Fox News and Fox Business, and written for publications such as USA Today, National Review, Newsweek, and the Daily Beast. He hosts the Breaking Boundaries podcast and has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.