The White House on Thursday announced limited steps to address supply shortages of baby formula following President Joe Biden’s discussions with manufacturers and retailers.
The new steps the Biden administration is taking include urging states to allow government nutritional assistance recipients more flexibility in the varieties of infant formula they can buy, calling on the Federal Trade Commission and states attorneys general to crack down on price gouging by manufacturers and importing more formula from overseas, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
The announcement came after Biden spoke with formula retailers and manufacturers – including the CEOs of Wal-Mart, Target, Reckitt and Gerber – to discuss the ongoing crisis.
Specifically, Psaki said, Biden discussed how Reckitt and Gerber have increased production amid a formula recall by Abbott Nutrition. And the conversation with Wal-Mart and Target focused on their work to stock shelves with formula including in rural areas. She also said the new steps come after work that’s been going on “for weeks and months now.”
American stores have had a hard time keeping baby formula in stock for months due to a recall, inflation and supply chain problems. Manufacturers have said they are producing at full capacity, but it’s not enough to keep up with demand.
US grocery store shelves had even less infant formula last week than they had the week before, according to a new report from Datasembly, a real-time data tracking agency that gauges how much product is available.
The report, released Tuesday, showed that the out-of-stock rate for baby formula in the US was at 43% for the week ending May 8. It was at 40% during the previous week. By comparison, in the first half of 2021, when the supply of formula was considered stable, the out-of-stock rate was between 2% and 8%. But the rate has been steadily increasing since then. Additional data from the agency found that more than 50% of formula is out of stock in eight states and the District of Columbia. For the week prior, only six states had that level of shortage.
Biden officials on Thursday repeatedly declined to predict when store shelves will return to normal.
Abbott Nutrition, which recalled several lots of their formula in February after they were linked to infections in infants, said on Wednesday that its Sturgis, Michigan, plant could be up and running within two weeks, and product could be back on shelves in six to eight weeks, subject to approval by the US Food and Drug Administration.
Abbott said it is improving its systems and protocols at the facility and that it is also making upgrades to the plant.
In a call with reporters, a senior administration official said the FDA will announce “very soon” how the US will be able to import more formula from abroad but declined to offer further details.
Asked whether the President will invoke the Defense Production Act, which allows the government more control during emergencies to direct industrial production, one official said that they continue to “explore every option” but said Biden is not using the law at this time.
Previously, the FDA announced other steps to address the shortage, which included working closely with the industry to maximize production capabilities, expediting FDA reviews, expanding hours of operation for manufacturers and calling on retailer groups to consider placing purchase limits on some products to prevent hoarding.
Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday expressed urgency about addressing the situation.
Pelosi said the issue needs to be addressed by Congress “right now.”
“Right now the baby’s crying, the baby’s hungry – we need to address it right now,” said Pelosi. “And I think we have good focus on it. And we’ll see what the President has to say. And we have our proposals as well.”
Pelosi said that House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro is taking the lead on the issue in the House.
McConnell issued a statement blasting the administration for its handling of the formula shortage, saying, “This problem has been developing in slow motion for several months now, but the Biden administration has been characteristically sluggish and halting in response.”
“The FDA knew about the initial recall. The administration should have foreseen these supply shortages,” McConnell continued. “But the Biden administration has been too slow and passive about getting production back up and running. Both Republican and Democratic senators have demanded answers from the administration and gotten none.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.