Three months after the infant formula shortage started brewing, officials in Oregon and other states finally have started cracking down on price gouging.
In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown has issued a proclamation that the state is seeing an “abnormal market disruption” causing a shortage of baby formula. The shortages stem from recalls, supply chain disruptions and labor shortages, she said in the proclamation. Oregon has already had reports of what the state called “unusual increases” in baby formula prices.
Brown noted that Oregon law (ORS 401.965-5) allows the governor to declare an abnormal disruption of the market. That then allows the attorney general to go after any suspected price gougers.
“Many Oregon families across the state rely on baby formula to nourish their newborns and children, and it is critical that they can easily access this nutrition without abnormally increased prices,” Brown said in a statement.
Consumers in Oregon who’ve seen excessively priced infant formula are encouraged to file complaints online or by calling the Oregon Department of Justice’s consumer protection hotline at 877-877-9392.
Unlike in some states, Oregon didn’t set exact definitions for prices that would be deemed as price gouging. California, for example, this month set a low bar for price gouging. Infant formula sold in California can’t exceed the price it sold for on Feb. 17 by more than 10 percent through at least Aug. 31, 2022. There are a few limited exceptions. Feb. 17 was the day the Food and Drug Administration announced the initial recall by Abbott. It took only a few weeks for shortages – and price gouging – to start.
The Abbott plant in Michigan that was closed in February supplied as much as 40 percent of the nation’s powdered formula. The shutdown, not surprisingly, has led to devastating shortages and parents desperate enough to feed their babies that they may be willing to pay exorbitant prices.
Reports have emerged from across the country of cans of formula being offered for sale at double, triple or even quadruple the price they sold for in February. Most of the excessive pricing is occurring on online marketplaces, which are difficult for authorities to monitor or regulate for various reasons, including because cans of formula available for sale are likely sold in hours or even minutes.
The infant formula shortages are expected to last at least until July but it could be longer, particularly because the Abbott plant at the center of this had to close again last week because of storms and flooding.
Other states that recently enacted new crackdowns on price gouging of infant formula include Colorado, Kentucky and New Jersey. The definition of price gouging and the dates involved may vary in different states. Nearly 40 states have some sort of price gouging law, but most target a specific category of products, such as fuel or emergency supplies needed for storm cleanup, and don’t directly include infant formula.
Even states without price gouging laws are jumping on board to combat unfair prices. New Mexico’s attorney general office, for example, said on May 31 it’s investigating shortages and excessive pricing. New Mexico doesn’t have a specific law addressing price gouging but does have a law prohibiting “unfair or deceptive trade practices and unconscionable trade practices.”
To report suspected price gouging in any state, find the state in our guide. https://uspirg.org/feature/usf/how-identify-and-report-price-gouging
Consumer Watchdog, PIRG
Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist and columnist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, Best Business Writer in Ohio, National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.