The White House is under pressure to rectify the country's baby formula shortage, but despite President Joe Biden evoking the Korean War-era Defense Production Act, the problem is poised to remain unresolved for weeks.
And the administration's blame game has exasperated parents, who are now demonstrating their political strength ahead of November's midterm elections, whether through questions of masking in schools or so-called critical race theory.
Criticism of the Biden administration is "well-founded" since the White House knew about the baby formula crisis — or should have known and prepared for it, according to Republican strategist Susan Del Percio. And it is "one problem compounding on another problem," given that Biden continues to be "caught flat-footed" before a midterm election cycle tipped to be a presidential referendum, she told the Washington Examiner.
"This administration was elected because people wanted to see competency back," she said. "It took months before they addressed inflation. To the American public, they seem behind the curve at every turn." Del Percio added: "Once is a fluke, twice as a coincidence, three times is a pattern."
Democratic strategist Stefan Hankin scorned the parties for trying to score political points. But he agreed the White House underestimated the ramifications of Abbott Nutrition, the country's biggest baby formula manufacturer, closing a Michigan factory in February due to contamination concerns. Cronobacter sakazakii bacteria sickened at least four infants, killing two, though Abbott has distanced itself from the deaths. Cronobacter sakazakii bacteria causes deadly sepsis or meningitis in children.
"The buck stops with Biden, right? He's in charge," Hankin said, citing inflation and abortion access as 2022's defining issues. "But I guess we'll see. I mean, I can see the ads."
The White House insisted it has been focused "24/7" on fixing the baby formula shortage since Abbott's February voluntary recall. But reports indicated that the top federal regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, was notified of insanitary conditions at the Abbott plant in September. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra then told CNN that the “FDA has kept me apprised of this from last year.”
The White House announced it is collaborating with baby formula manufacturers and retailers, such as Gerber, Reckitt, Target, and Walmart, to increase production and decrease hoarding and is streamlining FDA review procedures for domestic supply and imports from countries such as Chile, Ireland, Mexico, and the Netherlands. In fact, aides contend more baby formula has been made in the last month than in the four weeks before the Abbott recall and that April sales nationwide were about 10% higher than in March.
After announcing it is also easing state-based federal aid restrictions while calling on the Federal Trade Commission and attorneys general to crack down on price gouging and unfair market practices and create a dedicated website, the White House was needled on the delay. Then-press secretary Jen Psaki conceded that "hindsight is always 20/20." Biden himself said: "If we'd been better mind readers, I guess we could have, but we moved as quickly as the problem became apparent to us."
Following staffers being pushed for advice to parents who are waiting for the Abbott facility to reopen after the company struck a court-approved consent decree and for importation to be expanded, the White House announced it is using the Defense Production Act for baby formula ingredients. The Defense Department is using commercial planes to fly in stock. House Democrats passed a $28 million aid package to remedy the issue.
"If there is a brand available in the store, even if it's not your normal product or a slightly different formulation or a different brand or powder versus liquid or any of those differences, it is — the formula on U.S. shelves is safe, and it is safe to move your baby between products," a senior administration official told reporters. "At the same time, you know, it is not safe to water down formula or to make your own infant formula at home."
Abbott said it expects it will take six to eight weeks to replenish merchandise two weeks after manufacturing resumes.
"We know millions of parents and caregivers depend on us, and we're deeply sorry that our voluntary recall worsened the nationwide formula shortage," Abbott Chairman and CEO Robert Ford said. "We will work hard to re-earn the trust that moms, dads, and caregivers have placed in our formulas for more than 50 years."