President Biden plans to increase the amount of baby formula imported into the U.S. to address a long-running shortage that has frustrated and desperate parents running from store to store trying to feed their babies, a senior administration official said Thursday.
The steps were announced after Mr. Biden spoke with retailers Wal-Mart and Target and formula manufacturers Gerber and Mead Johnson to discuss the crisis.
Baby formula has been in short supply since February, when Abbott Laboratories’ factory in Sturgis, Michigan, paused production as food-safety regulators investigated possible contamination of its Similac formula. Abbott also issued a voluntary recall, further dwindling supplies.
Administration officials who spoke with reporters bristled at the suggestion they were caught flat-footed by the shortage, which had been building since the recall.
“I can assure you this is not new to the White House’s radar,” an official said. “We’ve been working on this issue since the very beginning and the days leading up to the recall, since mid-February. We have been working closely with the USDA and FDA on a suite of actions, which is why we are able to say today that production today exceeds production just before the recall.”
Still, administration officials could offer no timetable for when they expect the shortage to subside.
“We absolutely recognize the frustration of parents and families,” the official continued. “We know that the American people need to see products on the shelves and this is a critical issue. I don’t have a timeline for you.”
Officials say the steps announced Thursday will make a difference in restocking baren store shelves.
The U.S. will allow more baby formula products to be imported from abroad. It is unclear if the increased amount will be enough to meet demand. More than 98% of the formula used in the U.S. is consumed here, with the remaining 2% imported from Chile, Ireland, and the Netherlands.
An administration official said the Food and Drug Administration will soon announce specific steps to boost baby formula imports.
It is also unclear how importing more baby formula will overcome supply chain bottlenecks that have delayed the shipment of critical goods into the U.S.
Mr. Biden also plans to make it easier for parents who get formula through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to purchase formula.
The WIC program, which is only available to low-income individuals, currently limits purchases to a specific variety formula. The Biden administration will waive that requirement giving families more flexibility during the shortage.
More than 1.2 million infants receive formula benefits through the WIC program. Some state programs have already waived the requirements during the shortage.
Mr. Biden has also ordered the Federal Trade Commission to open investigations into possible price gouging of baby formula, suggesting retailers might take advantage of the shortage to boost profits.
In addition, the Justice Department will work with state attorneys general to probe potential claims of price gouging.
About 43% of popular baby formula brands were sold out during the first week of May, according to retail data collection firm Datasembly, which tracks baby formula stock at more than 11,000 U.S. sellers.
Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, Texas, and Tennessee all reported an out-of-stock rate of 50%, according to Datasembly.
Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration recalled Abbott Nutrition’s Similac, Alimentum, and EleCare powdered infant formulas after babies died from ingesting bacteria-laden products manufactured at the company’s facility in Sturgis, Michigan.