President Biden said Wednesday that his administration did not foresee the baby formula crisis, as he stumbled in defending his administration’s handling of the Abbott Nutrition plant closure that led to the nationwide shortage.
He said the Food and Drug Administration was forced to take immediate action to “stop contaminated formula” from “putting American children at risk” and that his administration has been “working diligently across every spectrum” to address the shortage since the plant closed in February.
“The Food and Drug Administration acted quickly to bring Abbott back into compliance with safety standards,” Mr. Biden told a group of baby formula manufacturers that did not include Abbott. “But it takes time.”
He said the risk of “unsafe formula” was unacceptable.
“The last thing we should ever do is allow unsafe formula to be sold to parents,” he said. “Instead, we should increase the production of safe formula. This is the approach we have taken.”
Mr. Biden has pushed back against criticism that his administration did not act soon enough to stem the shortage in the wake of the Abbott plant closure.
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When pressed by reporters after his remarks, Mr. Biden conceded that he did not predict the extent to which the closure would hurt formula supplies.
He said he did not become aware of the full extent of the crisis until April, more than a month after the plant’s shutdown.
“I don’t think anyone anticipated the impact of the shutdown of one facility,” he said. “Once we learned of the extent of it and how broad it was, we kicked everything into high gear.”
However, several of the formula producers said during the meeting that they knew shutting down Abbott’s plant would drastically limit nationwide supplies.
When pressed by reporters after the meeting, Mr. Biden said while industry executives foresaw the coming crisis, he did not.
“They did, but I didn’t,” he said.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre scrambled to clean up the president’s remarks, though she was unable to convey an exact timeline of how the crisis unfolded in the White House and when exactly the president was made aware of the extent of the shortage.
She said the administration had been engaged in a “whole-of-government approach” to address the shortage since the FDA began recalling infant formula in February over safety concerns.
“The president understands how difficult this is,” she said. “He understands how challenging this is. And we have acknowledged that.”
“He understands that this is the job of the president to be able to multitask, to get things done, especially when it comes to making sure that your child gets healthy food. And so that is what we’ve been doing.”
The FDA ordered Abbott to close its Sturgis, Michigan, plant, which produced about 40% of the nation’s total supply of infant formula, in February after four formula-fed infants were sickened.
After conducting a multiweek inspection, the FDA said it uncovered five strains of Cronobacter sakazakii, a naturally occurring germ that can live in dry foods and powdered goods, at the plant.
Abbott said none of the strains identified by the FDA was found in two of the four infants who fell ill, and executives said the company quickly addressed the FDA’s concerns in writing in early April.
Still, the company had to wait weeks to reopen until the FDA gave its final approval.
As the plant remained closed, the nationwide formula reached crisis levels. The national stock of baby formula was 40% lower than normal by mid-May, according to Datasembly, a retail data and research firm.
The formula shortage has vexed American parents for months, compounding the other crises confronting Mr. Biden, such as inflation and soaring gasoline prices.
Republican lawmakers accused the FDA of delaying the plant’s reopening as the formula shortage became more severe.
Last month, Mr. Biden announced that he would invoke the Defense Production Act, which requires suppliers to prioritize sending resources to formula producers ahead of other customers.
He also announced an initiative to streamline the process of importing foreign-produced formulas.
Under what the White House calls Operation Fly Formula, the Health and Human Services and Agriculture departments are using Pentagon-contracted commercial aircraft to pick up overseas infant formula that meets U.S. health and safety standards.
On Wednesday, the White House announced its third and fourth shipments of foreign-produced formula to the U.S. under the program.
United Airlines agreed to fly more than 300,000 pounds of Kendamil infant formula from London’s Heathrow Airport beginning June 9, the White House said.
Kendamil said it will export up to 2 million cans of formula, the equivalent of 54 million 8-ounce bottles in total, to the U.S. The formula is expected to be available for sale by U.S. retailers nationwide in the coming weeks.
Separately, the White House announced it had secured 380,000 pounds of Bubs infant formula from Australia.
The Department of Health and Human Services has arranged the flights to transport the Australian product from Melbourne to Pennsylvania and California on June 9 and June 11, respectively.
“Because of these flights, high-quality formula is already on the way to American shelves,” Mr. Biden told the executives gathered virtually.
He said that before Wednesday’s announcement, the U.S. had imported 1.5 million bottles of formula for children with severe allergies under the program, reducing the total lead time from three weeks to import the product to three days.
“We’re going to stay focused on doing even more,” he said. “I’m going to make sure the families in every part of the country can get the formula they need.”
A report from The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday suggests that the crisis persists despite the administration’s efforts.
According to market research firm IRI, The Journal reported that the nation’s formula stock was 23% lower than normal for the week ending May 22 compared with 21% the week prior.
The normal out-of-stock range for infant formula is 5% to 7%, according to IRI.
In January, before Abbott closed its plant, 11% of formula was out of stock because of pandemic-related supply chain snags.
Numerous retailers have taken to rationing what formula they do have, limiting purchases to a set amount to prevent hoarding.
The administration’s relationship with Abbott shows little signs of improvement.
The meeting Wednesday included executives from five formula producers including ByHeart, Bubs, Gerber, Reckitt and Perrigo Co., who all dialed in to rally behind the cause of quickly getting formula back onto store shelves.
No Abbott executives attended the meeting.