Biden defends response to baby formula shortage as complaints grow, probes planned

The administration hasn't provided a timeline on when shelves will be restocked.

President Joe Biden on Friday defended his administration’s response to an ongoing baby formula shortage that has triggered public outcry from parents, lawmakers and drawn Republican fire.

"There's nothing more urgent we're working on than that right now, and I think we’re going to be making some significant progress very shortly," Biden said from the White House at an event that had been meant to tout public safety funding — reflecting how the lack of formula has quickly overtaken other administration concerns.

Biden dismissed growing criticism that the White House was too slow to respond to the nationwide shortage that had been building for months, telling reporters, "If we had been better mind readers, I guess we could’ve, but we moved as quickly as the problem became apparent to us."

Complaints from families grew increasingly desperate this week as they encountered more empty shelves, with an estimated 43% of formula products out of stock as of Sunday at stores across the U.S., according to tracking firm Datasembly.

Biden on Friday reiterated the efforts already announced by the White House to alleviate supply issues, including supporting expanded state-level access to baby formula for recipients of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (also known as WIC) and a new government website to provide information to caregivers.

Biden also he believes more formula could be getting on the shelves "in a matter of weeks or less" as the Food and Drug Administration scrambles to find a way to relax restrictions in order to allow more formula to be imported from abroad.

The FDA is expected to detail their plan for imports next week. It remains unclear how the imports would work given the agency’s requirements on formula packaging and vitamin content, though Commissioner Robert Califf tweeted Friday that the agency will ensure imported products meet "certain safety, quality and labeling standards."

“We have to move with caution as well as speed because we got to make sure what we are getting is in fact first-rate products,” Biden said. “That’s why the FDA has to go through the process.”

The shortage — compounded by broader, coronavirus-related supply chain issues — was worsened by a recall from Abbott, one of the nation's largest manufacturers of baby formula products.

The company pulled three of its popular brands in February and closed its plant in Sturgis, Michigan, in the wake of bacterial infections linked to two infants who died after consuming Abbott formula and an FDA inspection that documented problems at Abbott's Michigan facility, including the same bacteria.

(Abbott maintains there is no evidence its products were connected to the babies' deaths, though it has acknowledged the infractions the FDA found elsewhere at the plant.)

A complaint against Abbott was first filed in September, but the FDA didn't investigate the plant until approximately four months later.

Republicans haven’t missed a beat in laying the blame on the Biden White House, holding a press conference on Thursday to speak out on the issue.

"This is not a Third World country," Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican and a new mother, said at the press event. "This should never happen in the United States."

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell addressed the shortage in his own floor speech on Thursday, calling it "outrageous and unacceptable."

"It seems that while President Biden's administration and the FDA ... have been asleep at the switch in terms of getting production back online as fast as possible," he argued.

Meanwhile, the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill is launching their own investigations. The House Oversight Committee is demanding records from four major formula manufacturers.

"We have asked for a briefing by the end of the month, and we've asked three basic questions: Do they have the supply to meet the demand? Is there a supply chain problem that can be corrected? And what can we do to make sure this doesn't happen again?" Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., told ABC News.

A group of 32 Senate Democrats on Friday wrote a letter urging the Infant Nutrition Council of America — an association of formula manufacturers — to take "immediate action" to address the shortage, though they didn't offer any specific steps the group can or should implement.

"We are calling on you and your member companies to take immediate action and ensure that infant formula manufacturers are making every effort to mitigate this dangerous shortage and get children the nourishment they need," the lawmakers wrote.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., announced Wednesday her panel would examine the Abbott plant in Michigan, where the bacteria was found, and the "FDA's delayed response to this horrific incident."

DeLauro released a whistleblower complaint last month showing a former employee of Abbot detailed concerns about alleged wrongdoing at the facility.

Abbott said it could restart operations at its Michigan facility within two weeks of getting the green light from the FDA. From there, the company estimates it would take an additional six to eight weeks to get the product into stores.

But the FDA said Friday that Abbott's plant still carried contamination risks as of March.

"The plant remains closed as the company works to correct findings related to the processes, procedures, and conditions that the FDA observed during its inspection of the facility from January 31 – March 18, 2022, which raised concerns that powdered infant formula produced at this facility prior to the FDA's inspection carry a risk of contamination," an FDA official said.

Abbott says they are working to address the FDA's issues so they can resume operations.

"We are confident that we can continue to produce safe, high-quality infant formula at all of our facilities as we have been doing for millions of babies around the world for decades," the company said in a statement on Friday.

ABC News' Anne Flaherty, Mariam Khan, Molly Nagle and Allison Pecorin contributed to this report.

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