Politics

Big Questions Remain About White House Plan to Speed Formula to Shelves

WASHINGTON — Administration officials struggled on Thursday to explain how President Biden’s decision to invoke a Cold War-era statute will help alleviate the shortage of baby formula that has left desperate parents searching for ways to feed their infants.

On Wednesday, Mr. Biden authorized the use of the Defense Production Act in an effort to ensure that formula manufacturers had access to the ingredients and materials they need to ramp up production. Shortages developed after Abbott Laboratories, which controls 48 percent of the baby formula market, voluntarily recalled some of its most popular products in February and shuttered a plant in Sturgis, Mich., over concerns about possible contamination.

But a senior administration official, who spoke to reporters Thursday on the condition of anonymity, declined to say whether any formula companies reported having trouble getting ingredients or materials in a timely manner.

In response to numerous questions about the potential impact of the president’s decision, the official repeatedly said the administration was “having active and ongoing conversations with the companies” but declined to say what the companies had requested or even whether the firms had identified problems that needed government assistance.

The official also could not answer how much faster the administration believed formula would reach consumers with the invocation of the Defense Production Act. And the official declined to answer when asked why Mr. Biden did not authorize the use of the law weeks or even months ago, when the shortages began after the plant closure.

The official said only that the administration had “been clear from the outset that we are going to pull every lever that we can find when we need to deploy a lever” and added that invoking the Defense Production Act “builds on” previous actions that the administration has taken.

In a statement, Abbott Laboratories said the act “can be an effective tool to prioritize raw materials and ensure supply of specialized components.”

“We’re already express air-freighting infant formula from our F.D.A.-registered facility in Ireland and welcome any support that these added measures can provide in cutting red tape, increasing volume of imports and speeding up transport time from overseas to the U.S.,” the company said.

Mr. Biden’s White House has accelerated its response to the shortage of baby formula in recent days as media reports about the impact on families has increased. This week, there have been several reports of small children and infants who were taken to hospitals because their parents could not find the specialized baby formula they needed.

In a video posted to Twitter on Wednesday, Mr. Biden 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.”

On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration announced it would relax guidelines for imports of baby formula from other countries in an effort to restock shelves in the United States. On Wednesday, Mr. Biden also announced a plan to use planes contracted by the Defense Department to help speed the import of formula.

A second administration official on Thursday said companies with formula to ship into the United States could use the Defense Department planes after “some negotiations.” The formula would be flown to the companies’ facilities in the United States, where it would be inspected by the F.D.A. before being distributed to retail locations across the country.

The first administration official said that the White House was “actively in conversations and discussions with manufacturers about where there might be cargo around the world that would be suitable for that procedure.” The official declined to reveal which companies the administration was in discussions with.

The Defense Production Act was created to give the government the power to ensure the flow of weapons during wartime.

But during the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald J. Trump invoked it as a way of accelerating the production of personal protective gear for hospital workers and the manufacture of vaccines and other drugs to fight Covid-19. Earlier this year, Mr. Biden invoked the law to increase domestic production of critical minerals and metals needed for technologies like electric vehicles.

Several congressional Democrats on Wednesday praised the president for taking action, saying that the administration should do everything possible to resolve the shortages. Some Republicans, however, criticized the administration for misusing the act.

“It seems the administration has no use for the word ‘defense’ in Defense Production Act,” Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. He accused Mr. Biden of “misusing the D.P.A. statute every time there’s a temporary product shortage.”

Using the Defense Production Act can cause disruptions to supply chains that ripple across the country, making it a solution that officials often say should be a last resort. But as he invoked the act on Wednesday, Mr. Biden said it was an essential move.

“Adequate supply of infant formula is critical to the health and safety of the millions of children who depend on the formula for essential nutrition,” he said in the official memorandum authorizing the use of the law. “The Federal Government has worked in the last several months to address the shortfall in infant formula, but additional measures are needed to ensure an adequate supply of infant formula in the United States and thereby protect the health and well-being of our Nation’s children.”

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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