Politics

Biden invokes Defense Production Act to address infant formula shortage

(CNN) — President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that his administration would be taking new actions to attempt to alleviate ongoing infant formula shortages in the United States, including invoking the Defense Production Act.

The President is invoking the act — which allows the government more control over industrial production during emergencies — to direct suppliers of formula ingredients to prioritize delivery to the manufacturers of formula.

Biden also announced the creation of Operation Fly Formula, which directs the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture to utilize the Defense Department’s commercial planes to import formula from abroad.

In a White House video announcing the actions, Biden said he has directed his team “to do everything possible to ensure there’s enough safe baby formula and that it’s quickly reaching families that need it the most. This is one of my top priorities.”

The Defense Department will use contracts with commercial cargo airlines, according to the White House, to transport foreign baby formula products that have met US Food and Drug Administration standards to the US.

“Bypassing regular air freighting routes,” the White House underscored, “will speed up the importation and distribution of formula and serve as an immediate support as manufacturers continue to ramp up production.”

Biden also wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra on Wednesday that he was requesting they both “work expeditiously to identify any and all avenues to speed the importation of safe infant formula into the United States and onto store shelves.”

“I further request that over the next week you work with the Department of Defense to utilize contracted aircraft to accelerate the arrival of infant formula into the United States that meets our Government’s health and safety standards. This will ensure that we are using every available tool to get American families swift access to the infant formula they need,” he continued.

The Biden administration has faced growing questions and criticism for a national formula shortage that has anxious and angry parents hopping from store to store in search of baby food.

Wednesday’s announcement follows other steps the administration has taken over the last week to address concerns about a months-long formula shortage, which has worsened as a result of supply chain issues and the extended closure of a major formula plant in Michigan.

The FDA has reached an agreement with Abbott Nutrition to reopen that plant. The agreement lays out steps the manufacturer must take to restart production at its manufacturing plant in Sturgis, Michigan. Once Abbott has completed the to-do list to the FDA’s satisfaction, the company says it would take two weeks to resume production of baby formula at the facility.

A White House official also told CNN earlier Wednesday that the Biden administration is working directly with infant formula manufacturer Reckitt and retailers, including Target, to provide logistical support as it works to help alleviate a nationwide formula shortage.

Reckitt, which manufactures Enfamil brand formula, has been working to boosts its domestic production — efforts that have been aided by the White House since Biden spoke with the leaders of Reckitt and Gerber, and retailers Target and Walmart, last week. Officials have been in “close communication” with the four major US manufacturers of infant formula — Reckitt, Abbott, Nestle/Gerber and Perrigo — as well as major retailers this week following the conversations with Biden.

The administration also established a website, HHS.gov/formula, to provide resources to families in need. But when a CNN reporter tested out some of those options, the exercise resulted in apologetic customer service representatives, one hold time that lasted well over an hour and serious challenges in finding baby formula through some of the main suggestions listed on the new HHS website.

Last week, the administration also announced limited efforts to import more formula from overseas, urge states to allow government nutritional assistance recipients more flexibility in the varieties of infant formula they can buy and crack down on price gouging by manufacturers.

Wednesday’s announcement comes a day before FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf is scheduled to appear before Congress, where he will testify before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on the FDA’s 2023 budget as well as oversight of infant formula.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.