The US has said it will step up imports of baby formula over the coming weeks as the Biden administration looks to tackle growing shortages across the country.
The White House on Thursday announced officials were working on ways to remove barriers to increase imports as families report not being able to feed their children and rationing supplies.
The move is aimed at boosting supplies following days of criticism from Republicans that the administration is not doing enough to alleviate the shortages, which started after a major manufacturer closed one of its factories in February.
A senior administration official said: “These are important actions that build on the work the administration has taken to date . . . We are working around the clock to do everything we can to bring as much production as possible to market while also maintaining the wellbeing and safety of children and families.”
The baby formula shortage is the latest casualty of broader turmoil in global supply chains and labour markets in the wake of the pandemic. Supplies of the product had been stretched for months, but the situation became an emergency when producer Abbott recalled three of its products after four babies became sick after consuming them and two of them died.
Abbott then closed its manufacturing facility at Sturgis, Michigan while inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration conducted an investigation. About 43 per cent of baby formula products are out of stock, according to the latest data from market research company Datasembly.
Republicans have sought to turn the issue into a political attack on the administration, saying officials have allowed the problem to deteriorate for weeks unchecked.
Elise Stefanik, the Republican representative from New York, said on Thursday morning: “When I reached out in February from my office to the [FDA], we received no substantive response. Joe Biden simply has no plan.”
Mitt Romney, the Republican senator from Utah, wrote to the FDA earlier this week accusing it of having been slow in helping Abbott reopen its factory.
Josh Hawley, the Republican senator from Missouri, suggested on Thursday that Biden should use the Korean war-era Defense Production Act to increase supplies. Officials can use the DPA to compel private companies to prioritise fulfilling certain contracts if they are deemed to be in the national interest.
The White House’s plan does not rely on the DPA to increase supplies. Instead, officials at the FDA are working on ways to increase imports, which currently make up 2 per cent of US supplies. The administration is also working with states to liberalise the social security system so parents can use their benefits to pay for a wider range of formula products.
The FDA on Thursday said it was working “around the clock” to help reopen the Sturgis factory, after it collected several samples of the bacterial infection cronobacter sakazakii during its investigation. The regulator also said it was working with other manufacturers to increase supplies.
Meanwhile, Abbott said that if it gets the go-ahead from the FDA, it is ready to open its Sturgis site within two weeks and have products back on shelves in six to eight weeks.