Parents across the country have been scrambling in recent weeks to find formula to feed their children amid a massive shortage, prompting the Biden administration to mobilize military aircraft and boost imports.
On Wednesday, the White House said it was launching “Operation Fly Formula,” in which the administration will use the Defense Department's commercial aircraft to bring formula more quickly to the United States from abroad.
“DOD will use its contracts with commercial air cargo lines, as it did to move materials during the early months of the COVID pandemic, to transport products from manufacturing facilities abroad that have met Food and Drug Administration (FDA) safety standards,” the White House said in a statement. “Bypassing regular air freighting routes will speed up the importation and distribution of formula and serve as an immediate support as manufacturers continue to ramp up production.”
The administration also announced on Wednesday that it is invoking the Defense Production Act to force companies that provide important ingredients to formula manufacturers to serve them before other clients. “Directing firms to prioritize and allocate the production of key baby formula inputs will help increase production and speed up in supply chains,” the White House said.
On Wednesday night, the House passed two bills aimed at alleviating the shortage as well, in part by providing the FDA with $28 million in additional funding to address the shortfall.
The new measures were the latest in a series of actions from Washington to restock store shelves after the FDA caused a major formula plant to shutter earlier this year, triggering the shortage. Four children who had ingested formula from an Abbott facility in Sturgis, Michigan, were hospitalized with Cronobacter sakazakii infections, and two have since died.
In February, the FDA said it had found the bacteria while inspecting the facility and warned parents against using some formulas produced there. Abbott, the largest formula manufacturer in the U.S., then voluntarily recalled some of its products, and the Michigan plant has been quiet since.
The closure of the facility combined with existing pandemic-related supply chain woes caused formula availability to dwindle nationwide, with the situation worsening in the last few weeks. The out-of-stock rate for formula in the U.S. hit 43% in early May after surging in April, according to the most recent figures from analytics firm Datasembly.
The administration’s turn to tools typically associated with wartime conditions underscores the growing urgency to solve a crisis that has left many parents panicked and struggling to feed their infants.
“Formula is not available on any of the shelves,” Kayzie Weedman, a mother whose young daughter relies on formula, said in a now-viral TikTok video. “They're empty — nowhere near three hours near me [has it]. Can't get the formula. What are we going to do? Where are we going to go from here? How do formula moms feed their kids?"
Weedman said that due to severe allergies, her daughter can only drink a specific type of specialty formula that’s in short supply. Other parents responded to share Weedman’s concerns — and some even mailed her enough formula to last weeks.
Mothers have also taken to social media to push back against misguided advice simply to breastfeed more. Many infants like Weedman’s have health conditions that prevent them from accepting breast milk, while some mothers are unable to breastfeed for various reasons, including insufficient supply, latching problems, and work obligations.
Already, at least two children in Tennessee have been hospitalized as a result of the shortage. The children have a condition called short bowel syndrome and use EleCare, which is made by Abbott, the New York Times reported.
On May 16, the FDA and Abbott struck a deal to reopen the Sturgis plant, with the company prioritizing specialty formulas. “Once the FDA confirms the initial requirements for start-up have been met, Abbott could restart the site within two weeks,” the company said in a news release. “The company would begin production of EleCare, Alimentum, and metabolic formulas first and then begin production of Similac and other formulas.” Fresh products would hit store shelves six to eight weeks after the facility reopens, the company said.
“Today’s action means that Abbott Nutrition has agreed to address certain issues that the agency identified at their infant formula production facility in Michigan,” FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf said in a statement. “The public should rest assured that the agency will do everything possible to continue ensuring that infant and other specialty formulas produced by the company meet the FDA’s safety and quality standards, which American consumers have come to expect and deserve.”
The White House and FDA announced other measures they are taking to try to improve formula supply across the country, such as meeting with manufacturers to urge them to expand production, allowing producers to import formula from abroad that has been made safely more easily, and adding flexibility to labeling requirements to allow more formula to hit the market.
Since then, Nestle, the owner of Gerber, has announced that it will be flying formula from Switzerland and the Netherlands to the U.S. to try to help alleviate the shortage.
The administration has urged regulators to crack down on possible price gouging as well. “There have been several reports that actors are purchasing formula at retail stores and reselling it online at a markup several times the retail price, especially specialty brands of formula that have experienced the most disruption,” the White House said. “These actions not only are costing families hundreds of dollars for formula they need, but drive scarcity on the market.”
The Agriculture Department has also urged states to allow parents using federal benefits to purchase formula to have access to a wider variety of brands and product sizes in case those that are typically allowed are out of stock. Those benefits, known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, support more than 6 million people across the country.
“The more than 1.2 million infants receiving formula benefits through WIC are typically limited by federal law to a specific brand of infant formula,” Brian Dittmeier, head of public policy at the National WIC Association, said in a statement. “To guarantee formula-fed infants have the nutrition they need to thrive, WIC families must not be limited in their options when manufacturers are still grappling with how to put stock on the shelves.”
“We must remain mindful of the structural factors that led to this moment, including the extreme consolidation of the infant formula market,” Dittmeier added. “When so few companies — with such highly centralized operations — command the overwhelming majority of the domestic infant formula supply, a single plant being shuttered for a few weeks can have catastrophic effects.”
On Wednesday night, the House passed legislation aimed at providing WIC families with better access to formula, in addition to a separate bill to provide the FDA with $28 million to hire more inspectors. Both bills now head to the Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he hopes to take up the legislation in the coming days.
The shortage has attracted fresh scrutiny on Capitol Hill, too, with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle demanding answers. In a letter to the FDA, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, called the agency’s actions “too little, too late,” and he expressed “deep concern” that its “inaction and complacency has imperiled the food supply of our youngest and most vulnerable Americans.”
“I am particularly concerned to learn that FDA had knowledge about supply challenges, yet did not take decisive action to prevent shortages of this critical food source,” Burr wrote. “While families scramble to find infant formula, the FDA must be held to account for its role in this crisis.”
Burr requested answers to more than a dozen questions about the FDA’s handling of the situation by Friday.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has launched an inquiry into Abbott’s tax rates and stock buybacks in recent years.
“I have long been concerned that windfalls from sweeping tax cuts for mega-corporations enacted by the 2017 Republican tax law would be used for padding the pockets of corporate executives and wealthy shareholders,” Wyden wrote in a letter to Abbott’s CEO, according to Bloomberg News. “It appears my concerns have been validated in this case, as Abbott chose spending billions on buying back its own stock instead of investing in critical upgrades to a plant essential to feeding our nation’s infants.”