The White House is struggling for answers about the shortage of infant formula

The White House is struggling for answers about the shortage of infant formula

After announcing a series of limited steps the Biden administration is taking to address the shortage, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was able to answer questions from CNN’s MJ Lee on Thursday about the federal government’s guidance for concerned parents who don’t have a formula to feed their children, cannot answer clearly.

When asked what a parent who doesn’t have access to formula or breast milk should do — for example, is there a helpline they can call or if they should go to the hospital, for example — Psaki said, “I would say that is important But… what I can tell you all is what we are doing to address this very issue, which is doing everything we can to ensure store shelves are restocked and we have increased replenishment for the last four weeks.”

When asked which government agency would be better off directing such questions to and what parents should do if they can’t find a formula, Psaki said, without naming an agency, “We definitely encourage all parents who have concerns about health or their child’s well-being – to call their doctor or pediatrician.”

American stores have struggled to stock baby formula for months due to recall, inflation and supply chain issues. Manufacturers have said they are producing at full capacity, but that’s not enough to keep up with demand.

According to a new report from Datasembly, a real-time data-tracking agency that estimates how many products are available, US grocery store shelves had even less infant formula on their shelves last week than the week before.

The report, released Tuesday, showed that the U.S. baby formula out-of-stock rate was 43% in the week ended May 8. Last week it was 40%. For comparison, in the first half of 2021, when formula supply was considered stable, the out-of-stock rate was between 2% and 8%. But since then the rate has steadily increased. Additional agency data revealed that more than 50% of the formula is out of stock in eight states and the District of Columbia. The week before, only six states had this level of tightness.

Recent moves by the government to address the shortage include asking states to allow recipients of federal food assistance more flexibility in the types of infant formula they can purchase and asking the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to crack down on price gouging by manufacturers and to import more formula from overseas.

The announcement came after Biden spoke to retailers and formulators — including CEOs of Wal-Mart, Target, Reckitt and Gerber — to discuss the ongoing crisis.

In particular, Psaki said Biden discussed how Reckitt and Gerber increased production amid an Abbott Nutrition formula recall. And the conversation with Wal-Mart and Target focused on their work to fill shelves with milk formula in rural areas as well. She also said the new steps come after work, which has been going on “for weeks and months”.

Psaki, who was peppered with questions about the shortage during Thursday’s briefing, confirmed that the application of the Defense Production Law – which allows the government more control over the direction of industrial production in emergencies – remains on the table. But despite saying that the government’s existing efforts have had “success” in ramping up production over the past week, Psaki and other Biden officials have declined to predict when store shelves will return to normal.

And while the US Food and Drug Administration said in a statement to CNN that its around-the-clock work with manufacturers should increase supply, the agency didn’t say when the increase would take place.

Abbott Nutrition, which recalled several batches of its formula in February after they were linked to infections in infants, said Wednesday that its Sturgis, Michigan plant will be up and running within two weeks and the product again in six could be on shelves eight weeks, subject to FDA approval.

Abbott said it is improving its systems and protocols at the facility and is also making upgrades at the facility.

Speaking to reporters, a senior administration official said the FDA will announce “very soon” how the U.S. can import more formula from abroad, but declined to give more details.

Earlier, the FDA announced additional steps to address the shortage, including working closely with industry to maximize manufacturing capacity, accelerating FDA reviews, extending hours of operation for manufacturers, and asking retailer groups to place purchase restrictions on some products to consider to prevent hoarding.

On Thursday, the FDA told CNN that the agency is “doing everything in its power” to ensure there is enough infant formula available for people who need foods they are used to and are frustrated because they are not are able to.”

The FDA said most manufacturers are producing at normal or even expanded capacity, adding, “It is important that the FDA continue its work to ensure Abbott has a safe resumption of infant formula production at the Abbott Nutrition facility in Sturgis, Michigan to further alleviate these supply challenges, which remain a key area of ​​focus.”

Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday expressed the urgency to address the situation.

Pelosi said the issue must be addressed “immediately” by Congress.

“Right now the baby is crying, the baby is hungry — we have to deal with that now,” Pelosi said. “And I think we have a good focus on that. And we’ll see what the President has to say. And we also have our suggestions.”

Pelosi said House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro will take the lead on the matter in the House.

McConnell issued a statement criticizing the administration for its handling of the formula shortage, saying, “This issue has been evolving in slow motion for several months, but the Biden administration’s response is characteristically sluggish and hesitant.”

“The FDA knew about the original recall. Management should have anticipated these supply shortages,” McConnell continued. “But the Biden administration has been too slow and passive to get production going again. Both Republican and Democratic senators have demanded answers from the administration and received none.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Sam Fossum, Kaitlan Collins, Nikki Carvajal, Jen Christensen, John Bonifield, Kate Sullivan, Ted Barrett, and Danielle Herman contributed to this report.

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