After the nationwide baby formula shortage began dominating news headlines — and after some Republicans began publicly demanding more action from the Biden administration — White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday the administration has been working on the formula issue for "months."
The run on baby formula follows the closure of a single Abbott facility in Michigan where much of the country's formula is made. Abbott is the nation's largest manufacturer of formula, and at this point, 40% of the nation's formula is out of stock.
Senior administration officials told reporters on a call Thursday that its months-long attention to the shortages is the reason baby formula production in the last four weeks has at least matched production in the four weeks prior to the closure of the Abbott plant. But critics are questioning why shortages have become so severe and why the government is only taking certain actions now, if the administration had already been aggressively tackling the issue.
Invoking the Defense Production Act to try to increase formula production has not been ruled out by President Biden, and the administration is also expanding the array of formula products that may be purchased with WIC benefits. The FDA will announce expansions to the importation of foreign-made formula next week.
Mr. Biden, asked by a reporter Friday if his administration should have taken these steps earlier, responded, "If we'd been better mind readers, I guess we could have. But we moved as quickly as the problem became apparent to us. And we have to move with caution as well as speed, because we've gotta make sure what we're getting is in fact first-rate product."
Friday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House will bring up a bill next week to grant emergency authority to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program to address supply chain disruptions and recalls by relaxing certain regulations that are not related to the safety of the products.
"Ensuring that every precious baby has the nutrition that he or she needs is a matter of the baby's life and development. While it is essential that we ensure that this issue never happens again, right now the babies are crying and the babies are hungry – so we must take urgent action to protect their health and well-being," Pelosi said.
Two other committees in the Democratic-led House, the House Appropriations Committee and Energy and Commerce Committees, are planning hearings. The House Oversight Committee sent letters on Thursday to the top four formula manufacturers — Abbott Nutrition, Mead Johnson Nutrition, Nestle USA and the Perrigo Company — to ask them what steps they have taken to increase supply, lower prices, prevent price gouging and when they expect to have enough supply to meet demand. The committee asked for a response and a briefing by May 26.
"What we're trying to figure out is how do we fix these problems ASAP? How do we increase the supply? And how do we avoid price gouging at all costs? Because that is also an issue," said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, citing reports that parents are paying three or four times the normal costs for formula. He called on the Federal Trade Commission and other agencies to look for price gouging in the market.
Krishnamoorthi, who chairs a subcommittee on economic and consumer policy, wrote to the FDA in late March to ask why the agency had waited five months to warn consumers after a potentially deadly infant cronobacter sakazakii infection was linked to contaminated formula manufactured at an Abbott facility in September.
On Thursday, Republican Reps. Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma and Randy Feenstra of Iowa introduced a bill called the Formula Act that directs the FDA to communicate clearer standards for regulating infant formula and apply those standards to foreign infant formula so it is easier to import. Most of the formula consumed in the U.S. is produced domestically, in part because of the tight regulatory barriers and import tariffs imposed on foreign formula. The two lawmakers were joined by a dozen House Republicans in a press conference calling on the administration to do more.
"Biden and FDA needed to work directly with the manufacturers and hospitals to make sure that we have an adequate supply of baby formula and make sure that parents know where to go if the shelves are empty at the store," said Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican. "This is not a third world country. This should never happen in the United States of America."
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney has also written to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to express his concern that the two agencies are not moving quickly enough to both investigate contaminated infant formulas and to work to get more options on the market.