White House: FDA's Working On Baby Formula Shortage, But There's No 'National Stockpile'

The lack of formula on store shelves emerged as an explosive political issue on Monday.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki addressed the national baby formula shortage during Monday's daily press briefing at the White House.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki addressed the national baby formula shortage during Monday's daily press briefing at the White House.
Drew Angerer via Getty Images

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working to fix a baby formula shortage resulting from supply chain problems and a recall ordered earlier this year after two infants died from bacterial infections, the White House said Monday.

The shortage has led retailers, including Target and CVS, to limit how much formula parents can buy at stores. Amazon is also limiting online orders. Out-of-stock levels for baby formula reached 31% around the country in April, according to Datasembly, a retail data collection firm.

Out-of-stock rates exceeded 40% in seven states: Connecticut, Delaware, Montana, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington.

The issue exploded politically on Monday, with Republicans bashing the administration. However, both parties in Congress and the White House did little about the shortage as it grew in the months following the recall, and several senators told HuffPost they were unaware of the crisis on Monday. Only one major politician ― former Rep. Abby Finkenauer, a Democrat running for Senate in Iowa ― has put forward any sort of plan to deal with the crisis.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it’s the FDA’s job to make sure formula is safe and in good supply.

“Ensuring the availability of these products is also a priority for the FDA and they’re working around the clock to address any possible shortage,” Psaki said Monday.

Psaki did not outline any steps the Biden administration is taking in addition to what the FDA is doing. Unlike with oil, the president can’t tap a strategic Enfamil reserve to offset low national supplies.

“I don’t believe there’s a national stockpile of baby formula,” Psaki said.

Last month, Finkenauer called on Biden to invoke the Defense Production Act to force manufacturers to produce additional baby formula. (Finkenauer, who lost her House seat in 2020, is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley.)

Finkenauer, who at age 33 is far younger than the average senator, said she’s heard from mothers facing the problem while campaigning, and has seen her friends post on social media about their struggles to find formula.

“I’m hearing some of these horrific stories of moms across not just Iowa, but the country, not being able to get their kiddos the nutrition they need,” Finkenauer told HuffPost on Monday. “And it’s absolutely horrifying, and shouldn’t be happening in the United States of America.”

She compared the need for formula to the need for personal protective equipment and ventilators at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when the Trump administration used the Defense Production Act to increase supplies of both.

“This is a tool when there’s a crisis in our country,” she said.

A slew of Republicans blasted the Biden administration on Monday over the shortage, but offered no solutions to the problem.

This is absolutely UNACCEPTABLE in America,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter. “Sadly, this has become the norm because of Joe Biden’s radical agenda.”

Several senators told HuffPost they weren’t aware of the shortage at all when asked about it on Monday.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said he intended to send a letter to the FDA seeking more information about the matter.

“I’m very concerned about [the shortage],” Romney said. He said he is trying to understand “how they could make a decision about safety that apparently didn’t seem to include consideration about supply — because supply is also essential for the health of our children — and I can’t see how badly they misjudged, apparently, the setting that we’re in.”

Baby formula became harder to find starting last summer, a result of the same supply chain snarls that hit the broader economy. The problem grew more acute in February, when Abbott Nutrition announced it was recalling select lots of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare formulas from a factory in Sturgis, Michigan. At least four babies became sick due to bacterial infection linked to the formulas, and two died. The company has said the bacteria that sickened children wasn’t found at its plant.

The FDA did not respond to a request for comment on when formula supplies might return to normal.

In its budget request for fiscal 2023, the agency asked Congress for authority to require firms to warn when a shortage could happen. “No law requires manufacturers of infant formulas or essential medical foods to notify FDA when they become aware of a circumstance that could lead to a shortage of these products,” the agency said in its request.

Abbott said in April that it had been sourcing product from a plant in Ireland since the FDA ordered the closure of its facility in Sturgis.

“Across the U.S., we’re prioritizing production of infant formula products to help replenish the supply in the market,” the company said. “And, this year, we will more than double the amount of Similac Advance powder formula we’re bringing in from our manufacturing facility in Cootehill, Ireland.”

The formula shortage comes on the heels of a pandemic that pushed more parents to rely on diaper banks for necessities, said Joanne Goldblum, director of the National Diaper Bank Network.

Goldblum said the 225 local diaper banks affiliated with her organization distributed 86% more diapers during the COVID-19 pandemic than they did in previous years. Diaper banks typically also distribute wipes and other necessities; 88 members of the National Diaper Bank Network provide formula to local charities in addition to diapers.

“Food scarcity and diaper need go hand-in-hand,” Goldblum said. “In the richest country in the world, meeting the basic needs of children should be a priority.”

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