WASHINGTON — The Biden administration announced several actions Thursday aimed at relieving a nationwide shortage of infant formula.
“President Biden has directed his administration to work urgently to ensure that during the Abbott Nutrition voluntary recall, infant formula is safe and available for families across the country,” the White House said in a fact sheet. “The Biden-Harris administration will continue to monitor the situation and identify other ways it can support the safe and rapid increase in the production and distribution of baby formula.”
The origins of the shortage go back to February 17, when Abbott Nutrition announced a voluntary formula recall following concerns about bacterial contamination at the company’s Sturgis, Michigan, facility; four infants fell ill and two died after drinking the formula. While the plant has been offline, the administration has been working to ease the shortage, a senior administration official said in a phone call with reporters.
The administration’s actions include “cutting red tape to expedite the import of improved formula from other countries … and we have been working with retailers to impose purchase limits to prevent the possibility of hoarding,” the official said. In addition, “we have had ongoing work with all manufacturers of infant formula to bring products to market, and we have really seen that pay off” in terms of increased production.
On Thursday, President Biden met with representatives of formula retailers and manufacturers, including Walmart, Target, Mead Johnson, and Gerber “to talk to them about the work they’re doing and call on them to do all they can to help families purchase and access infant formula,” the official said. “The President discussed with Mead Johnson and Gerber their ongoing efforts to increase production. Their work has made up for the loss of production by Abbott.”
When the president spoke to the CEOs of Walmart and Target, “he focused on issues specific to retailers and how they are working to stock shelves, including in rural areas, and regional disparities they’ve been seeing,” the official added. “The president similarly asked what more his team and all of us can do to help move product and get more product to these communities.”
The Biden administration also announced that “to help further increase manufacturers’ ability to meet demand and distribute formula, USDA [the Agriculture Department] is working with states to make it easier for vulnerable families to purchase the formula they need with their WIC [Women, Infants, and Children program] benefits. USDA is urging states to allow WIC recipients to use their WIC benefits on a wider variety of products so that if certain sizes or types of formula are out of stock, they can use their benefits on those that are in stock,” the fact sheet noted. “And USDA is urging states to relax their requirements that stores keep a certain amount of formula in stock. This will offer relief to retailers and allow companies to manage inventories to meet demand.”
The administration also called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on price gouging and any other unfair market practices related to infant formula. “Parents looking to feed their child should not be taken advantage of by unscrupulous retailers unfairly jacking up prices,” the fact sheet stated. “There have been several reports that actors are purchasing formula at retail stores and reselling it online at a markup several times the retail price, especially specialty brands of formula that have experienced the most disruption. These actions not only are costing families hundreds of dollars for formula they need, but drive scarcity on the market.”
The Justice Department is also encouraging state attorneys general to use their powers to address price gouging, the fact sheet noted.
Meanwhile, the FDA will soon announce steps to increase the supply of imported infant formula, the administration said; usually, the U.S. produces 98% of the formula it consumes. Asked whether the administration would invoke the Defense Production Act to increase the formula supply, a senior official did not answer directly, but said, “We’ll continue to explore every option on the table and look at any levers we can pull to address this situation … We feel reassured that the companies now are back at production levels that are above the production levels that they had been right before the February 17 recall took place. But again, we’re going to keep every option on the table and keep exploring things we can do.”
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