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Biden urges retailers, manufacturers to ease baby formula shortage

By BELINDA ROBINSON in New York | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2022-05-13 09:12

Grocery store shelves where baby formula is typically stocked are nearly empty in Washington, DC, on May 11, 2022. [Photo/Agencies]

US President Joe Biden met with retailers and baby formula manufacturers on Thursday to urge them to help alleviate supply chain issues that have left parents searching for formula in stores.

The president met with the CEOs of retailers Walmart and Target, and Nestle's Gerber to ensure that families would be able to obtain the formula in stores after a recall impacted availability nationwide.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at a news briefing Thursday: "President Biden has directed the administration to work urgently to ensure that infant formula is safe and available for families across the country during the Abbott nutrition voluntary recall."

The formula shortages occurred after Abbott Laboratories recalled a product called Similac that was made at its Sturgis, Michigan, plant, in February.

The company received several complaints that infants who had been given the product developed bacterial infections.

Altogether, four children, one in Minnesota, one in Texas and two in Ohio became ill; two children died.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that the bacterium Cronobacter sakazakii "may have contributed to the cause of death for both patients".

But Abbott said that after conducting its own investigation at the Michigan plant, it was unlikely that it was the source of the infections.

The White House said that the shortages had made some people hoard the formula over fears that it would run out. It also had found that some third-party sellers were stockpiling the formula to sell at a higher price to parents.

The president asked the attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission to "crack down on any price gouging or unfair market practices, related to sales of infant formula", Psaki said.

The Biden administration said it had been working to increase supply in the market place for months. But it provided no exact date of when stores would be fully restocked. It noted that there had been an increase in supply over the past four weeks.

Psaki added: "We also think that it's important to note that the FDA took a step to ensure that babies were taking safe formula. There were babies that died after taking this formula."

During the meeting of manufacturers and retailers, Biden discussed Gerber's attempts to increase production to make up for the Abbott shortfall.

Psaki said that the Biden administration plans to "cut red tape" to get states to deliver formula to parents.

The FDA will release information on how to safely import formula from abroad.

Abbott, the biggest supplier of baby formula in the US, said Wednesday that pending FDA approval, it could restart production within two weeks.

"We take this very seriously," Abbott said Wednesday. "We know the recall has worsened an already existing industrywide infant formula shortage in the US, and we've been seeing and hearing the stress and despair of parents who are facing empty shelves."

The Abbott recall was just one reason for the baby formula shortage. Inflation and general supply shortages caused by the coronavirus pandemic also have had an impact.

Several US retail giants, including Target, Walgreens and CVS, limited the supply of baby formula available for purchase in stores and online.

At the beginning of May, stockpiles of baby formula were 43 percent lower than April, when it was 30 to 40 percent lower, according to figures compiled by Datasembly, which monitors retail information.

FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf said the agency is also working to alleviate the shortages.

Califf said in a statement Tuesday: "Ensuring the availability of safe, sole-source nutrition products like infant formula is of the utmost importance to the FDA. Our teams have been working tirelessly to address and alleviate supply issues."

The majority of parents in the US use formula to feed infants. Only 1 in 4 children are exclusively breastfed up to the age of 6 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

US House lawmakers will hold a hearing May 25 to further address the issue. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that lawmakers want to make sure it does not happen again, "but right now the baby's crying, the baby's hungry and we need to address the situation right now".

The Biden administration was criticized by House Republicans on Thursday over how it has addressed the formula shortage.

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