Biden looks overseas for baby food shortage solution

bare shelves in the baby formula aisle
Photo credit USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services

A nationwide baby formula shortage has finally gotten the attention of the federal government.

The White House held a meeting Thursday to address the shortage of baby formula that has been frustrating parents across the country for months.

President Joe Biden met with executives from baby food manufacturers Gerber and Reckitt, as well as retailers Target and Walmart, to explore ways to expedite production and distribution.

Both formula companies stated that they are operating 24/7, with Gerber increasing the amount of their infant formula available to consumers by approximately 50% in March and April, the White House said in a statement. Reckitt is also supplying more than 30% more product year to date.

As for the retailers, the CEOs discussed state specific disparities and the president asked what more his team can do to help move product and get more product to communities in need, the White House said.

Following the meeting, the administration announced new steps it was taking to address the shortage.

To get more product on store shelves quickly, federal officials are cutting the red tape to expedite the import of infant formula from abroad.

"The U.S. normally produces 98% percent of the infant formula it consumes, and trading partners in Mexico, Chile, Ireland, and the Netherlands are key sources of imports. But given the production and distribution issues leading to local short supplies of infant formula, the FDA will, in the coming days, announce specific new steps it is taking concerning importing certain infant formula products from abroad," the White House said.

To help further increase manufacturers' ability to meet demand and distribute formula, the Department of Agriculture is working with states to make it easier for vulnerable families to purchase the formula they need with their WIC benefits. About half of infant formula nationwide is purchased by participants using WIC benefits.

The government is also urging states to allow WIC recipients to use their benefits on a wider variety of products so that if certain sizes or types of formula are out of stock, they can use their benefits on those that are in stock.

Additionally, federal officials are calling on state attorneys general to crack down on any price gouging or unfair market practices related to sales of infant formula.

"Parents looking to feed their child should not be taken advantage of by unscrupulous retailers unfairly jacking up prices. There have been several reports that actors are purchasing formula at retail stores and reselling it online at a markup several times the retail price, especially specialty brands of formula that have experienced the most disruption. These actions not only are costing families hundreds of dollars for formula they need, but drive scarcity on the market," the White House said.

Two things are fueling the shortage. On top of ongoing supply chain issues brought on by the pandemic, the Food and Drug Administration in February shut down a Michigan facility operated by Abbott Laboratories after the agency received reports of children dying or getting sick from contaminated Similac formula produced at the plant.

Since then, formula has been scarce on shelves across America.

House Republicans on Thursday held a conference outside the Capitol, criticizing Biden for not addressing the shortage sooner, FOX News reported.

"House Republicans are here to push for action from the FDA and the Biden administration who should have had a plan for this shortage months ago," said Elise Stefanik, who serves as House GOP conference chairwoman. "This is not a Third World country. This should never happen in the United States of America. We're unified in demanding action to address this crisis."

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said many parents feel that "this is the biggest crisis they have faced."

"Families are turning to the internet because they are so desperate," she said. "It is extremely dangerous when you think about moms going to the grocery store and having an empty shelf. In some cases they're driving for hours in order to get the baby formula that they need, and they certainly don't need to be facing empty shelves."