Shortage of infant formula puts West Wing in crisis mode

Officials – who rolled out wartime measures and bypassed normal air cargo routes in response – are now facing criticism that the FDA moved too slowly to deal with the warning signs. At the same time, they’re trying to find out if formula manufacturers are actually running out of ingredients, while trying to combat potential price gouging.

Officials in several states were slow to report whether they were experiencing shortages or whether the national attention had generated local anxiety.

At the heart of the crisis is a closed manufacturing plant in Michigan. Abbott Nutrition’s factory, which is set to restart production soon, closed after two babies who had consumed formula produced there fell ill and died, prompting an investigation .

The shutdown exacerbated shortages caused by supply chain disruptions and highlighted the concentration of the formulas industry. It wasn’t until the crisis was already underway that many in the administration even realized how a single factory was producing medically specialized formulas for the entire country.

To further complicate the issue, Abbott Nutrition is the exclusive supplier of approximately half of the infants in WIC, the food assistance program that helps feed more than 1.2 million infants.

While White House aides pointed to action taken with the WIC program in February, the FDA has yet to explain the four-month lag between when a whistleblower filed a lawsuit against the facility. last fall and when the agency took action. FDA Commissioner Dr. Rob Califf told CNN an internal review would be conducted into what went wrong.

Frustration is also mounting on Capitol Hill. During a hearing this week, Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro blasted the FDA, saying that if the whistleblower’s claims are true, Abbott “lied, cut corners, falsified records” and “has knowingly put a contaminated product on the market” and that the FDA knew about it in October, but it took them until the end of December to act.

Califf said the FDA investigation was not yet complete, he was not yet able to respond to specifics, and he would be prepared to go into detail at a supervisory hearing later. next week.

Another Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Mark Pocan, challenged him on his silence.

“Please take this the right way, but I think there was frustration when you were asked what happened in the response you gave saying, ‘We’re investigating. , we can’t talk about it,” Pocan said. “You can talk about it, and honestly, you should. One problem I’ve seen over and over again with the FDA in my 10 years here is that you’re not good at communicating. And, you know, that’s something parents ask us, they want to know what happened.

“You all need to explain this in a way that real people can understand. I understand there’s science behind this, but it’s not okay to say you can’t comment on it.”

Frustration Building in the West Wing

In the meantime, every move and comment Biden and his aides have made has been weighed against mounting panic, with administration officials fearful of triggering hoarding, which would only increase the shortage.

As the crisis began to unfold, officials debated who should be the face of the crisis: the FDA, the Domestic Policy Council, or the National Economic Council. All three were working to solve the problem. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra was leaving for Indonesia. Eventually, NEC officials were among the first to go on television, with the FDA chief not appearing until a few days later.

Although Biden spoke with the CEOs of Reckitt and Gerber, two of the other infant formula companies, last week, aides were unable to get a clear answer from Abbott on why he has not yet reopened the factory.

Internally, frustration has grown around the FDA itself — an independent agency Biden has insisted not interfere with — for being too slow to approve import formulas, aides told CNN, as officials have insisted that ingredients produced overseas meet precisely U.S. standards and levels. , in addition to attributing other delays to the need to translate labels and measurements on foreign labels. CNN reached out to the FDA to comment on the White House’s frustration.

The result: The formula that babies drink every day in countries around the world had not been deemed safe enough for American babies, instead leaving many American babies without any formula at all, as health officials FDA have defended their efforts by acting cautiously to prevent a potential spiral of additional health problems for babies.

A White House spokesperson responded that they were “incredibly grateful for the work the FDA has done to ensure the health and safety of our children. It is their obligation and together we are focused on solutions.” to provide safer infant formula to the American people.”

The Defense Production Act is not a “magic wand”

Meanwhile, Biden’s invocation of the Defense Production Act this week took weeks because he and his aides were initially skeptical the move would have much effect. White House officials have been clear that DPA is not a “magic wand” to instantly increase production. Biden’s team debated internally whether invoking him would move the needle significantly on production before finally deciding to move forward.

The law, which can compel private companies to turn to manufacturing needed goods, is the only real tool Biden had directly. As helpful as the DPA was in building up the supply of masks and other protective gear early in the pandemic, White House officials failed to see how other factories or plants could be upgraded to create a formula, given the specialization of the ingredients and the machinery are at the Abbott plant.

However, as officials looked at other provisions of the law, they saw ways to indirectly speed up the supply chain and production process, whether by improving delivery of basic ingredients or necessary machinery. . Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg has publicly acknowledged that “a shortage of ingredients is not what led to the closure of the facility”.

“We will do things to reduce the days of production schedules and deadlines to make sure we get things to shelves quickly,” an administration official told reporters Thursday afternoon.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat facing a tough re-election race that prompted White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain to invoke the DPA in two conversations last week, acknowledged that in her response to Biden, he was actually doing what she asked.

“In addition to invoking the DPA, I continue to press administration and industry leaders to further cut red tape, bring all closed facilities into operation and increase imports of infant formula. safe from other countries,” Spanberger said.

Cabinet secretaries overseas as crisis erupts

White House aides also pointed to other measures aimed at minimizing the psychology that leads to panic buying in an attempt to stabilize consumer confidence.

They issued waivers that allowed customers to switch brands of formula without doctors’ notes or increase potential sales under the WIC food program, securing a market for companies that stepped up their own production. White House officials said Thursday that more infant formula is being produced now than before the Michigan plant closed.

To complicate the answer: The two Cabinet Secretaries with the most direct authority over the situation — Becerra, whose department oversees the FDA, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department oversees food production — were all two in Europe last week for conferences with their G7 counterparts. Their absences were noted by other members of the administration who remained in Washington working both behind the scenes and on public responses.

The fact that Becerra contracted Covid-19 in Germany added another wrinkle, but his spokeswoman Sarah Lovenheim said the secretary had pressed his international counterparts on the need for an imported formula, “They all get the message: fast and safe.”

Lovenheim described “a Herculean effort to get more formula safely onto the shelves,” adding, “People have been working around the clock, including over the weekend, and the goal is to keep moving quickly. and safely to get the formula into the hands of anyone with critical needs.”

HHS is now taking the initiative to pay for and arrange inbound shipments for what it calls Operation Fly Formula, the first announced Thursday night by the White House to bring in 246 pallets with the equivalent of 1.5 million bottles of 8 ounces from Switzerland to Indiana.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated which baby formula companies President Joe Biden spoke with. He spoke with the CEOs of Reckitt and Gerber.

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