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Aug. 16, 2022

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Washington parents struggling with formula shortage as Murray, Schrier promise action

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Ines Santos recently drove from her home in Bonney Lake to Everett to find two cans of baby formula for her son, desperate to keep him fed amid a nationwide formula shortage, she said. That’s a 120-mile round trip through Pierce, King and Snohomish counties.

“Families are suffering,” Santos said Thursday on a Zoom call with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier about the shortage that started after manufacturer Abbott Nutrition had products recalled due to health concerns and shut down a major plant in Michigan, exacerbating other supply-chain problems. “Families should not have to go through this.”

Murray and Schrier hosted the call to share updates about the crisis, which has generated political heat. Both are Democrats up for reelection this year; Schrier’s cross-mountain district, which stretches from Sammamish to Wenatchee, includes Bonney Lake.

“I know people are angry, and I am, too,” said Murray, who heads the Senate’s health committee and questioned the Food and Drug Administration response in a hearing Thursday, blaming manufacturers and the agency for allowing shelves to go bare.

There have been positive steps, Murray said, with President Joe Biden invoking the Defense Production Act to speed formula manufacturing and launching an effort to ship formula from overseas. The Senate approved and Biden signed legislation last week waiving restrictions on what types of formula parents can buy using Women, Infants and Children benefits.

“But there is a lot more that needs to be done,” added Murray, after pressing the FDA’s commissioner on why the agency hasn’t yet rolled out a plan to improve its food safety program.

Schrier plans to introduce legislation that would establish an “early-warning system” for formula shortages, like an existing system for medications, she said. She also mentioned the possibility that formula could be added to the national stockpile of medical supplies.

Parents are still struggling to find formula and are having to switch types, which can be hard for babies, Santos said. Paying for gas while searching eats up money for groceries, she added.

When this crisis began, White Center Food Bank employees had to throw away about 1,000 pounds of recalled formula, executive director Carmen Smith said. That was devastating, she said. The food bank has been able to distribute Enfamil formula since then but not Similac, an Abbott brand that many babies are used to, Smith said.

Washington’s WIC program, which serves about 53,000 babies, has added dozens of formula options, according to the state Department of Health. Families not finding what they need in stores can ask WIC staff to procure formula and have it shipped to a local clinic, said Michele Roberts, assistant secretary for prevention and community health. The department has launched a special webpage for baby formula help, available at doh.wa.gov.

Also on Thursday, King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, one of several Republicans competing to challenge Schrier, said he was proposing legislation that would direct the county to explore ways to procure and distribute formula, including bulk purchasing.

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