Why Biden is invoking the Defense Production Act to alleviate formula shortage

US ramping up formula production, authorizing flights to import supplies from overseas

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Panic started to set in for Erin Smith of Springfield, Delaware County, a few weeks ago, when the formula she uses for her 8-month-old son was suddenly impossible to find. She’s had some luck driving and calling around, but not enough luck to make her comfortable.

“Their digestive systems are so new and fragile that you can’t just switch formulas on them,” she said.

“It’s stressful. It’s time-consuming. And, that’s all in addition to having children and working full-time and your daily life. You’ve now just added money and time and your resources to finding a way to find formula.”

Smith is one of many parents across the country in search of baby formula, as the Biden administration works to get supplies back on track.

President Joe Biden said addressing the nationwide shortage is a top priority, and he announced on Wednesday he will invoke the Defense Production Act.

Invoking the Defense Production Act would require suppliers to provide the baby formula manufacturers with the resources they need before sending the goods to other customers they may have. This tactic was used to speed up the production of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021, and masks, ventilators and other medical supplies in 2020.

The president also announced an effort called “Operation Fly Formula”: “I’ve directed the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services to send aircraft, planes overseas to pick up infant formula that meets U.S. health and safety standards so we can get it onto store shelves faster.”

The Food and Drug Administration, on Monday, announced it would be more flexible when it comes to the baby formula that could be imported. Mexico, Ireland and the Netherlands provide the bulk of the formula that does come in. However, the FDA said the U.S. produces 98% of the formula that is consumed in the country.

Many families in the Philadelphia area and around the country are scrambling to find formula in stores. Some have taken to social media to share images of empty store shelves and tips on where they were able to find the product.

Smith joined a Facebook group called Delco Formula Finders, comprised of a lot of parents like her who are not just trying to help themselves, but each other.

“I see tons of people posting pictures of where they were and people commenting, ‘Can you grab me a couple cans and I’ll meet you and pay you for them?’ ” she said. “It’s just really showing a community come together and try to feed our babies.”

What’s causing the shortage?

The shortage of such an essential item has been caused by several factors. There are supply chain issues, similar to what other industries have been facing, but it goes beyond that.

“This is a deeper problem because only four companies account for about 90% of the entire market, which is making the supply chain extremely vulnerable,” Dr. Nilofar Varzgani, assistant professor of business systems and analytics at La Salle University, said on KYW Newsradio In Depth.

Listen to the full conversation below:

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One of those companies, Abbott, accounts for around 40% of the market share. The company voluntarily recalled its powdered infant formula and closed its manufacturing plant in Sturgis, Michigan, back in February. There were at least four complaints of Cronobacter sakazakii, a common environmental bacteria, in babies who consumed the powdered formula that was produced at the facility.

Abbott said two of the infants died, and two others became sick. The company maintains that after a review, there was no evidence to link its products to the illnesses.

The FDA and Abbott on Monday announced that the company agreed to take corrective actions so that the Michigan plant could reopen.

The company said production could start up again within two weeks, but it could take six to eight weeks after the restart for products to hit the shelves again.