WASHINGTON — A U.S. congressman from East Tennessee is asking state and federal legal officials to investigate baby formula stockpiling and price gouging as nationwide shortages continue to impact families.
Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) sent letters to Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday asking their offices to monitor retail prices of powdered formula, as well as review and investigate any reports of profiteers stockpiling formula to gouge prices.
"This formula shortage is devastating families across the country, and Tennessee is one of the hardest-hit states,” Burchett said. “As a father, I know there’s nothing more important than caring for our children, and our leaders need to make sure anyone who takes advantage of this crisis for profit is held accountable.”
Burchett said during a news conference Tennessee "has been hit the hardest" by the shortage, saying the state's formula out-of-stock rate is about 50% at the moment.
"Imagine somebody gouging the price of baby formula. To me, that classifies them in the dirtbag category, and they are," he said.
On Wednesday, New York Attorney General Letitia James issued a public consumer alert warning people about price gouging, saying her office was aware of reports that baby formula was being sold online for prices "far exceeding its retail value."
“The national baby formula shortage is terrifying for parents concerned about how to feed their children,” James said. “The last thing any family needs is to be price gouged on critical nutrition for their little ones, which is why I am putting profiteers seeking to take advantage of this crisis on notice."
Months of spot shortages at pharmacies and supermarkets due to ongoing supply chain issues have been exacerbated by a recall by Abbott, a major maker of several popular formulas in the U.S. The company recalled some of its best-selling formulas after two babies died from a bacterial infection. FDA investigators said a cluster of infant illnesses were possibly linked to lax safety protocols and traces of the bacteria found on several surfaces at the company's largest plant in Michigan, which was forced to shutter in February.
Abbott said it is increasing production at its other facilities to fill the gap, including air-shipping formula from a plant in Ireland.
Baby formula is particularly vulnerable to disruptions because just a handful of companies account for almost the entire U.S. supply.
Industry executives said the supply constraints began last year as the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in ingredients, labor and transportation. Supplies were further squeezed by parents stockpiling during lockdowns.
The Associated Press reported nationwide about 40% of large retail stores are out of stock, up from 31% in mid-April, according to Datasembly, a data analytics firm. More than half of U.S. states are seeing out-of-stock rates between 40% and 50%, according to the firm, which collects data from 11,000 locations.
For now, pediatricians and health workers are urging parents who can’t find formula to contact food banks or doctor's offices. They warn against watering down formula to stretch supplies or using online DIY recipes.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.