RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A North Carolina Senator said Thursday that the shortage of baby formula across the country was caused in part by “complacency and entrenched bureaucracy” at the Biden administration’s U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), a ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, released a statement Thursday evening about President Joe Biden’s administration and the FDA “creating the infant formula crisis.”
Supplies of baby formula across the country have been severely curtailed for months after a February recall by Abbott Nutrition and an extended closure of the country’s largest baby formula plant.
That closure exacerbated ongoing supply chain disruptions among formula makers, leaving fewer options on store shelves and increasingly anxious parents struggling to find nutrition for their children.
FDA Commissioner Robert Califf faced congressional anger Thursday for not answering questions about whether his agency should have intervened earlier at the Abbott plant in Michigan.
Califf is the first administration official to testify before Congress on the issue, that has left many parents hunting for formula and become a talking point for Republicans.
Califf sidestepped questions about whether his agency should have intervened earlier to address the crisis.
Burr released what he said was a “timeline of failure” noting how by February, the Biden Administration was aware that parents were struggling to find baby formula, while at the same time, production was halted at the plant in Michigan.
Burr reported that the nationwide out-of-stock rate for infant formula was at 26 percent in mid-February.
“This should have set off alarm bells,” Burr said in an email. “It should have prompted the FDA to move swiftly to resolve a legitimate public health concern – the possibility that isolated illnesses could be linked to formula produced in Abbott’s plant – and to safely restart production as soon as possible.”
But, Burr said the FDA instead “dragged its feet” in investigating and allowing the plant to reopen.
Regulators said just Monday that they’d reached a deal to allow Abbott Nutrition to restart the plant. The company must overhaul its safety protocols and procedures before resuming production.
After getting the FDA’s OK, Abbott said it will take eight to ten weeks before new products begin arriving in stores. The company didn’t set a timeline to restart manufacturing.
“At every turn, the FDA’s culture of complacency and entrenched bureaucracy worsened this self-inflicted crisis,” Burr said in the statement.
By May 1, the national out-of-stock rate for baby formula jumped to 43 percent, according to data from Burr.
“I know parents across the country are worried about finding enough formula to feed their babies,” Biden said in a video statement released Wednesday by the White House. ”As a parent and as a grandparent, I know just how stressful that is.”
He said that some lawmakers think the problem is because of a lack of funding, but pointed out the FDA received $1.5 billion in COVID-19 relief funds and $1 billion for a food program.
“This is not a funding problem; it’s a priorities problem,” Burr said. “The administration downplayed the shortage until it became a political liability for them.”
Lawmakers are also considering boosting staffing at the Food and Drug Administration with a $28 million emergency spending bill. That legislation also passed the House this week, but faces uncertain prospects in the Senate.
The Senate approved a bill Thursday aimed at easing the baby formula shortage for families participating in a government assistance program that accounts for about half of all formula purchased in the United States.
The House passed the bill the day before, so it now goes to Biden to be signed into law.
Participants in a program known as WIC get vouchers that are redeemed for specific foods to supplement their diets. The vouchers usually can only be used to purchase one brand of infant formula, that encourages the manufacturer to offer big discounts to secure a state’s business.
The bill makes it possible in extenuating circumstances for the Department of Agriculture to waive certain requirements so that WIC participants can purchase whatever brand is available.
Also Thursday, the Biden Administration said the Defense Department is working to book commercial aircraft to fly about 246 pallets of Nestlé formula from Zurich, Switzerland, to Plainfield, Indiana.
“Imports of baby formula will serve as a bridge to this ramped-up production,” Biden wrote.
The shipments will include the equivalent of up to 1.5 million 8-ounce bottles of three formulas – Alfamino Infant, Alfamino Junio, and Gerber Good Start Extensive HA, all hypoallergenic formulas for children with cow’s milk protein allergy. The White House said these are a priority because they serve a critical medical purpose and are in short supply.