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Biden invokes defence powers in a bid to ease formula shortage

  • Annie Karni and Emily Cochrane, The New York Times
    Published: 2022-05-19 08:13:04 BdST

Caitlin Joyce prepares a bottle of baby formula in Plymouth, Mass., May 15, 2022.  The New York Times

President Joe Biden took urgent action Wednesday to address the nationwide baby formula shortage, invoking the Defence Production Act to increase production and launching “Operation Fly Formula” to deploy Defence Department planes and speed formula shipments into the United States from overseas.

The moves are Biden’s first major initiative to respond to a crisis that has sown fear and frustration among parents across the country and prompted Republicans and Democrats alike to demand action.

His decision came as the formula shortage was threatening to become a political as well as a public health disaster for the administration, and on the eve of the first congressional hearing, with Dr Robert Califf, head of the Food and Drug Administration, to delve into how it happened and what is being done to respond.

The White House announced its plan only hours before the House was poised to take action of its own, approving an emergency infusion of $28 million for the Food and Drug Administration and a bill to loosen restrictions on what kind of formula can be purchased through the federal food aid programme for women and babies.

Under the plan that the White House put forward Wednesday evening, government agencies could apply to use commercial aircraft owned by the Defense Department to pick up infant formula from overseas and fly it into the United States, getting it onto shelves more quickly. On Monday, the FDA announced that it would streamline approvals so that more overseas companies could make such shipments.

The Defence Department will also use its contracts with commercial air-cargo lines to transport formula products from abroad, bypassing regular airfreight routes to speed up importation and distribution, as the administration did with medical material during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, administration officials said.

“I know parents all across the country are worried about finding enough infant formula to feed their babies — as a parent and as a grandparent, I know just how stressful that is,” Biden said in a video posted on Twitter. He had directed his administration “to do everything possible to ensure there’s enough safe baby formula and that it’s quickly reaching families that need it the most.”

Last week, Biden said the infant formula crisis was his highest priority and promised that parents would see more product on shelves within “weeks or less.”

Officials said invoking the Defence Production Act — a Korean War-era law designed to allow the president to require companies to take actions in the interest of the national defence — would allow the administration to compel suppliers of infant formula components to prioritise the needs of the formula manufacturers over others, helping to increase production and speed up the supply chain.

Several members of Congress, particularly Democrats facing difficult reelection races, have clamoured in recent days for Biden to invoke the law to ease the formula shortage. It was not clear how quickly the impact would be felt.

A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity and without authorisation to comment on the plan, said it could take time for companies to make use of the Defence Department’s offer to ship formula. But the official added that Biden was determined to do anything he could to shave even a few days off the manufacture and distribution of formula.

The White House offered details on the effort as it confronted aggressive questioning by Congress. In recent days, lawmakers have announced plans to haul administration and industry officials to Capitol Hill for testimony, demanded answers from Biden’s team on how the shortage was allowed to develop, and launched investigations into the crisis and Abbott Nutrition, the company that recalled several of its formula products after at least two infants died.

On Wednesday evening, the House was expected to approve bipartisan legislation that would grant the federal government emergency authority to expand the types of formula that can be purchased with benefits from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Programme for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC. About half the formula sold in the United States is purchased with WIC benefits, and the legislation aims to ensure that those benefits can be used to buy whatever formula is available.

But the proposal to issue emergency money for the FDA was likely to face a more difficult road amid opposition from Republicans, who said it was a blank check for an agency that had failed to prevent a major crisis.

In a notice sent to rank-and-file lawmakers, Republican leaders charged that Democrats had abandoned bipartisan talks and instead put forward legislation “with no plan to actually fix the problem, all while failing to hold the FDA accountable.”

The WIC measure, by contrast, was expected to draw broad support.

“I know what it means to not be able to stretch out milk for the entire month,” Rep Jahana Hayes, a sponsor of the bill, said this week. Hayes, who said she had used WIC benefits to purchase formula, added, “With everything going on right now, the last thing a family should have to worry about is feeding their children.”

Sen Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, said he would move quickly to bring up the bill and pass it in that chamber. Supporters said they were confident that if necessary, it could clear the 60-vote threshold required to advance most legislation.

“I feel, based on initial reaction, that we should be successful with 60 votes,” said Sen Debbie Stabenow. “This is so basic. Everyone understands that we’re all on high alert here, and this is an incredible emergency.”

“In a situation like this,” she added, “there’s never one silver bullet.”

But Republicans said they would oppose the emergency spending package, which they called overly broad. The three-page bill is intended to provide the agency with additional money to shore up its staff, which is responsible for monitoring the formula market and inspecting formula before it is shipped to stores.

Democrats defended the spending measure, pointing out that it would require the agency to send weekly reports to Congress outlining how the money is being spent.

“Anybody who says that that’s too much money to spend for the safety and well-being of our babies, I just don’t agree with,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said Tuesday. “Period.”

The action in the House came as lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol were demanding answers about the formula shortage and weighing more legislation aimed at responding. Califf was scheduled to appear before the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday, and again before the House Energy and Commerce Committee next week. That hearing was also to feature testimony from senior officials at Abbott and other top manufacturers of infant formula.

Sen Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and other Democrats put forth a bill that would broaden the FDA’s authority to collect information from companies and require manufacturers of essential nutritional products to provide timely notifications of potential supply disruptions.

Sen Ron Wyden, chair of the Finance Committee, announced Wednesday that he had asked for information about tax and stock buyback practices at Abbott Laboratories, which oversees the nutrition branch, as well as how much money went toward the shuttered formula processing plant. Sens Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey, both Democrats, wrote a similar letter demanding details about how the “prioritisation of profit over safety and public health has created this crisis.”

“Abbott is a responsible and transparent taxpayer, paying all of its taxes owed in every country in which it operates around the world,” said Jonathon Hamilton, a spokesperson for Abbott. He added that “stock buybacks are not impacting our ability to invest in or reopen our Sturgis manufacturing facility” in Michigan.

© 2022 The New York Times Company