Buttigieg on Nationwide Formula Shortage: ‘Government Does Not Make Baby Formula’

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the government does not make baby formula when asked to address the nationwide baby formula shortage.

Partial transcript as follows: 

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you a little bit on a personal note. We’ve been talking about this baby formula shortage nationwide that’s been ongoing now for months. You have infants at home. Do you have problems getting a hold of formula?

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, this is very personal for us. We’ve got two nine month old children, baby formula is a very big part of our lives. And like millions of Americans, we’ve been rooting around stores, checking online, getting in touch with relatives in other places where they don’t have the same shortages to see what they can send over. And we figured it out. We’re all set, at least for now. But I think about what that would be like,if you’re a shift worker with two jobs, maybe you don’t have a car, you literally don’t have the time or the money to be going from store to store. That’s why this is such a serious issue and that’s why it’s getting attention at the highest levels, including, of course, direct involvement by the president.

BRENNAN: Well, and this is going to be an issue Congress takes up this week. I know the President said more action is coming, but this has been ongoing for months. There are supply chain issues already. Then you have the issue with this one plant, Abbott, whistleblower in September, February the recall. It’s May. Why has it taken so long and why did the president on Friday seem to say that it was new information to him? He said, if we’d been better mind readers, I guess we could have done something earlier.

BUTTIGIEG: Well, look, the administration acted from day one after the recall. Taking steps like creating more flexibility for the WIC program to help rebalance the availability of formula in the States. There are more actions that are underway, including looking at imports. But fundamentally, we are here because a company was not able to guarantee that its plant was safe. And that plant has shut down.

BRENNAN: But that is the federal government’s job as regulators to help ensure safety of the plant-

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: As regulators, yes. But let’s be very clear. This is a capitalist country. The government does not make baby formula, nor should it. Companies make formula. And one of those companies, a company which, by the way, seems to have 40% market share, messed up and is unable to confirm that a plant, a major plant, is safe and free of contamination. So the most important thing to do right now, of course, is to get that plant in Michigan up and running safely. And that’s the work that’s going on between the company and the FDA. It’s got to be safe and it’s got to be up and running as soon as possible. But this is the difference between a supply chain problem, in other words, a problem about moving goods around, and a supply problem which has to do with whether they’re being produced in the first place. Now, the administration’s also been working with other companies to try to surge their production. That’s led to an increase in production, which is helping to compensate. But at the end of the day, this plant needs to come back online safely.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And we’ll have more on that later in the show. But because I know you’re not the FDA commissioner, let me talk to you about the things you are involved more in, which is supply chain procurement. How is the administration making sure that those essential ingredients that are actually required for something like formula are actually available?

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: So a shortage of ingredients is not what led to the shutdown of the facility–

MARGARET BRENNAN: No, it is a factor that has led to price. Inflation is one of the factors among many that has been blamed for months of problems with baby formula even before the recall in February.

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Right, but America has the productive capacity to create the baby formula that we need. I think what–

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you’re bringing it in from Europe right now.

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Right. But that’s because. Again, we’ve got four companies making about 90% of the formula in this country which we should probably take a look at-

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is that monopoly?

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, I mean, it’s-it’s basically a series of monopolies that have added up into enormous market concentration. By the way, this is an issue the president has been talking about in area after area after area, whether we’re talking about fertilizer, whether we’re talking about other things in our agriculture sector–

MARGARET BRENNAN: There are contracts there too, because this is also part of- I’m using the term food stamp program-

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But it’s a part of a government assistance program.

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: Which is exactly why, again, from day one after the recall-.

MARGARET BRENNAN: This isn’t just a private sector problem is my point. The federal government is directly involved in some of these arrangements.

SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG: A plant shutting down because a company can’t assure that it is physically safe from contamination is the responsibility of the company. The responsibility of the regulator is to ensure, as they take steps to get it ready, that it will in fact be safe when it comes back online.

Follow Pam Key on Twitter @pamkeyNEN

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