The company at the center of a baby formula crisis could face criminal charges, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday, as Democrats considered new government controls over the baby formula industry.
“I think there might be a need for indictment,” said Mrs. Pelosi, who has realigned the House agenda to address a baby formula shortage.
Democrats are also considering legislation that would give the federal government more control over the supply and distribution of formula, particularly when shortages arise. The plan would require formula companies to report inventory to the Food and Drug Administration, which could then move supplies from one state to another to fill empty shelves.
“We have a stronger hand to play here, if we would be willing to do so,” Mrs. Pelosi said.
The baby formula crisis began spreading across the U.S. after the FDA shut down an Abbott Nutrition baby formula plant in Sturgis, Michigan.
Abbott has contested claims by Democrats that its Sturgis plant was the source of a rare bacterial strain that sickened four infants and may have caused the deaths of two of them. Abbott officials contend the factory weeks ago implemented all of the recommendations made by the FDA to ensure safe formula production after an inspection. The factory could reopen in about two weeks if the FDA approves Abbott’s plan to restart.
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As the shortage impacts the nation and dominates headlines, Democrats are stepping up their effort to hold the company accountable and keep the shelves stocked.
The Justice Department announced Monday that it had filed a complaint and proposed a consent decree that would allow the plant to reopen but would require Abbott to take specific actions to ensure safety and compliance with FDA regulations.
Democrats are weighing legislation that would require formula companies to report to the federal government “what kind of supply they have” if formula becomes scarce.
Mrs. Pelosi said Democrats were also looking at ways to track and move baby formula supplies nationwide.
“There is also some attitude in the country that there is plenty of supply and just not all in the right places,” the California Democrat said.
“And there must be a computer program that tells us where that is. If that is so, then let’s get that moving right this minute into the mouths of babies.”
Democrats also plan to introduce a $28 million emergency federal funding bill that would pay for more FDA employees, who could be deployed to formula plants nationally and internationally to inspect plants to allow more production and imports of formula.
Abbott’s Sturgis plant is one of the nation’s biggest formula producers. The plant’s halted production has triggered a significant and nationwide formula shortage that Democrats, who control Congress and the White House, are desperate to remedy.
Besieged by low approval ratings over inflation, high gas prices and supply chain problems, party lawmakers are also eager to ensure Abbott absorbs all the blame for the empty shelves, despite an FDA investigation that could not link to Abbott’s factory to the specific bacterial strain that sickened the infants. The FDA investigation found other strains of the bacteria and other problems with the plant.
A recent whistleblower report from a fired employee accused the company of covering up quality control problems and failing to test formula for contamination before shipping it from the plant.
“This company has lied, it has cut corners and falsified records to cover up misdoings at the sake of infant health,” House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa L. DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat, said Tuesday.
Abbott officials will testify next week before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., New Jersey Democrat. The hearing will focus on baby formula safety and the product shortage that resulted from the Sturgis plant shutdown.
The witness list includes two other major formula manufacturers, Gerber and Reckitt. FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf and other top food safety officials will also testify.
Mr. Pallone said Abbott was selling contaminated formula, which the company denies.