WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden said Wednesday he wasn’t alerted that the nation faced a looming shortage of baby formula until April, though executives of baby formula manufacturers said they sounded the alarm to retailers two months earlier.
“We knew from the very beginning that this would be a very serious event,” said Robert Cleveland, senior vice president at Reckitt, which produces baby formula.
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The disconnect emerged at a virtual White House meeting between Biden and executives of five baby formula companies to discuss the administration’s efforts to ramp up formula production to address the shortage.
Triggering the crisis was the safety-related closure of Abbott Nutrition’s formula-making plant in Sturgis, Michigan, on Feb. 17. Abbott supplies 46.2% of the U.S. supply of baby formula, and about one-quarter was historically produced at the Michigan plant.
“From the moment that recall was announced, we reached out immediately to retail partners like Target, Walmart to tell them this is what we think will happen,” Cleveland told the president.
After the 50-minute meeting, Biden repeated, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the impact of the shutdown of Abbott facility,” minutes after manufacturers said they anticipated a shortage.
“They did, but I didn’t,” Biden said, adding that he wasn’t made aware of the problem until early April. “We did everything in our power from that point on. That’s all I can tell you right now. And we’re going to continue to do it together.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration has taken “a whole-of-government approach” since “Day 1 of the recall” of Abbott products in February even if Biden wasn’t alerted until later.
“What you hear from the president is his frustration with this issue itself,” she said.
Leading formula maker at center of crisis absent from meeting
Absent from Wednesday’s gathering were executives from Abbott, the company at the center of the shortage. Jean-Pierre pointed to the company’s consent decree with the FDA, which dictates benchmarks required to resume production, when asked why Abbott was not invited.
“That process is ongoing and should remain between them,” she said.
A representative from Abbott did not respond to messages from USA TODAY on its absence.
Executives who attended head five baby formula makers – ByHeart, Bubs Australia, Reckitt, Perrigo and Gerber – working with the Biden administration to fill Abbott’s production void. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy joined the president.
Biden, speaking to CEOs displayed on television screens, touted his administration’s efforts to increase production through “Operation Fly Formula,” which seeks to import baby formula from overseas, and by invoking wartime powers through the Defense Production Act. Both actions were announced in May, three months after the Abbott plant’s closure.
“There’s nothing more stressful than the feeling you can’t get what your child needs,” Biden said.
Biden announced the third and fourth series of shipments through Operation Fly Formula. United Airlines, free of charge, will transport more than 300,000 pounds of Kendamil formula – equal to about 3.7 million 8-ounce bottles – over a three-week period beginning June 9. The product will come from London to airports across the country.
Two flights on June 9 and 11 from Melbourne, Australia, will bring 380,000 pounds of Bubs Australia infant formula – equal to about 4.6 million 8-ounce bottles – to Pennsylvania and California. Additional shipments of Bubs Australia formula will be announced in the coming days.
“Still, we have work to do, but we are making incredible progress,” Biden said, adding that it could be a “couple more months” before the formula market returns to normal.
According to the White House, Operation Fly Formula has brought in the equivalent of 1.5 million 8-ounce bottles of infant formula from Nestle and Gerbers to the USA.
Through the Defense Production Act, the Biden administration authorized three baby formula makers, including Abbott and Reckitt, to receive priority from suppliers for certain materials.
Cleveland said the action supplied essential oils to Reckitt, helping to jump-start production, so the company will produce 40 million baby formula feedings per week, starting in June.
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In February, Abbott announced a recall of three powdered formulas, halted production and closed the troubled Michigan plant while the FDA investigated. The agency found bacterial strains inside the plant troubling enough to warrant the shuttering of the facility.
A whistleblower sent a complaint to the FDA four months earlier, alleging a litany of problems at the plant, including lax sanitation practices, failure to properly test for bacteria in infant formula and falsification of records.
Biden said the U.S. will have “significantly more” baby formula over the next month, and once Abbott returns online, even more supply. The company has said it plans to reopen its Sturgis, Michigan, plant on Saturday.
“Ensuring safety of a newborn child is a mother and father’s top priority,” Biden said. “It’s been my top priority as a father and a grandfather, and it remains at the top of my priorities today as president of the United States.”
More: Abbott plans to restart production of baby formula at Michigan plant on June 4
Contributing: Michael Collins, USA TODAY; and The Associated Press
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden says he wasn’t alerted to baby formula shortage until April
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