President Biden scrambled Thursday to show he’s on top of the baby formula shortage as frustrated parents and Republicans slammed the president for getting caught flat-footed and sending scarce formula to illegal immigrants while American parents stare at empty store shelves.
The president hurriedly convened a meeting with retailers Walmart and Target, and manufacturers Reckitt and Gerber to address the crisis, which has been building since February. After the meeting, the White House announced steps aimed at boosting supply, including importing more formula, expanding availability for low-income families and cracking down on price gouging.
Abbott Laboratories, the leading U.S. producer whose recall of several formula brands in February contributed to the shortage, said increased production could reach store shelves within two months.
Critics said the moves are too small and that the administration should have had a plan three months ago. It’s the latest challenge to the domestic leadership of Mr. Biden, who is taking heat for record-high gas prices and soaring inflation.
“Everything is more expensive in Biden’s America and now families are being devastated by a massive baby formula shortage,” said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Emma Vaughn. “Americans are struggling because Biden’s failures and his silence on this important issue is deafening — he just doesn’t care.”
About 43% of popular baby formula brands were sold out during the first week of May, according to retail data collection firm Datasembly, which tracks baby formula stock at more than 11,000 U.S. sellers.
Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, Texas, and Tennessee all reported an out-of-stock rate of 50%.
Kaiti Tramel, a new mother from Dallas, Texas, said the shortage has affected her and her infant daughter “mentally and physically.”
“The shortage creates so much more additional panic and stress on myself and my body to breastfeed as a first-time mom,” she told The Washington Times. “It’s created more costs for me because I am buying lactation supplements and vitamins to try and maintain a good supply of breastmilk, since they’re easier to find than formula.”
SEE ALSO: Biden looks overseas for baby formula to address the monthslong shortage in the U.S.
She said her daughter lost a few pounds during her first few days at home, a dangerous situation.
“We were advised to add in formula bottles, and I spent hours searching numerous stores,” Mrs. Tramel said. “Every shelf is bare. I spent hours searching until I ended up going to our pediatrician and begging for some formula samples. It’s a horrible feeling of uncontrollable hopelessness that you can’t help your child with a basic need to survive with this shortage.”
When pressed on why the White House wasn’t invoking the Defense Production Act — which grants the federal government the power to order manufacturers to produce products that are in short supply domestically — White House press secretary Jen Psaki insisted all options were on the table.
Images shared on social media by Rep. Kat Cammack, Florida Republican, raised more questions about Mr. Biden’s leadership on the shortage. Ms. Cammack posted images of empty store shelves in her state alongside a photo of pallets of baby formula that, she says, are at the Ursula Migrant Processing Center in McAllen, Texas.
Dozens of baby formula brands, including Nido and Advantage, can be seen in the photo. Ms. Cammack says the image was shared with her by a Customs and Border Protection agent who worked in his job for 30 years.
“They are sending pallets, pallets of baby formula to the border. Meanwhile, in our own district at home, we cannot find baby formula,” Ms. Cammack wrote on Twitter.
SEE ALSO: Illegal immigrants get ‘pallets’ of scarce baby formula, GOP lawmaker says
She urged her constituents to call Democratic leaders and “demand that the administration take action putting the baby formula back on the shelves for American kids.”
It is unclear from the photos whether the formula was purchased off the shelves, or whether it was part of the government’s existing inventory that it maintains to deal with a large number of families and children coming across the border.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Times.
The images drew a sharp rebuke of the administration from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, and National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd.
“Children are our most vulnerable, precious Texans and deserve to be put first,” they said in a statement. “Yet, President Biden has turned a blind eye to parents across America who are facing the nightmare of a nationwide baby formula shortage. While mothers and fathers stare at empty grocery store shelves in a panic, the Biden administration is happy to provide baby formula to illegal immigrants coming across our southern border.”
Baby formula has been in short supply since February, when Abbott Laboratories’ Sturgis, Michigan factory paused production as food-safety regulators investigated possible contamination of its Similac formula. Abbott also issued a voluntary recall, further dwindling supplies.
Texas mom Amber Kerbow said she had to search six stores and drive around for hours to locate a few cans of the formula for her daughter, who has a milk protein sensitivity. She had to resort to using a different brand that caused a stomach ache for her baby.
“I honestly thought by this point we wouldn’t be having any issues (after the recall),” she told The Washington Times. “It just makes me very anxious. It’s just really surprising that no one has done anything about this and it’s gotten worse.”
Administration officials spent Thursday on the defensive as they were peppered with questions about why it took the administration so long to address the shortage. Ms. Psaki refused to answer reporters’ questions about when the president was first briefed on the situation.
In the meeting with retailers and manufacturers, the president “pledged to work closely with them to identify ways the administration can help, on top of the actions being announced today,” the White House said.
The companies said they are “operating 24/7 with Gerber, increasing the amount of their infant formula available to consumers by approximately 50% in March and April. Reckitt is supplying more than 30% more product year to date,” the White House said.
Another administration official insisted that just because they had not announced any public actions, it doesn’t mean they were asleep at the switch.
“I can assure you this is not new to the White House’s radar,” an official said. “We’ve been working on this issue since the very beginning and the days leading up to the recall, since mid-February. We have been working closely with the USDA and FDA on a suite of actions, which is why we are able to say today that production today exceeds production just before the recall.”
Still, officials were unable to provide reporters with a timeline on when production could be ramped up.
Abbott, meanwhile, said its Sturgis plant could be back up and running within two weeks, and more products could be back on shelves within six-to-eight weeks, a grim assessment for anxious parents.
Administration officials insisted the steps unveiled Thursday will make a difference for parents.
The Food and Drug Administration will allow more baby formula imports into the country. But it’s unclear if that’s enough to meet demand, because 98% of the formula used in the U.S. is manufactured domestically.
Mr. Biden will also make it easier for parents who get formula through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to purchase formula.
The WIC program, which is only available to low-income individuals, currently limits purchases to a specific variety formula. The Biden administration will waive that requirement, giving families more flexibility during the shortage.
More than 1.2 million infants receive formula benefits through the WIC program. Some state programs have already waived the requirements during the shortage.
Mr. Biden has also ordered the Federal Trade Commission to open investigations into possible price gouging of baby formula, suggesting retailers might take advantage of the shortage to boost profits. In a letter to FTC Chair Lina Khan, the president directed the agency to use “all of its available tools and authorities to actively monitor the infant formula market and address any illegal conduct that may be contributing to scarcity and hoarding as well as study whether rural or smaller retailers are being put at a disadvantage.”
Mr. Biden said most retailers are not raising prices of formula, but said “temporary shortages like this one create an environment where unscrupulous profiteers could try to purchase infant formula at regular prices at retail outlets and resell it at an exorbitant markup to families that cannot find formula, including through digital platforms.”
In addition, the Justice Department will work with state attorneys general to probe potential claims of price gouging.
Democrats sought to shift the conversation away from the administration’s inaction, blaming the FDA for acting too slowly on Abbott’s recall.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, noted Thursday that Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat, had called for an investigation in March into the FDA’s handling of the situation.
“And when I say addressing, that includes investigating, looking for other possibilities in anticipation, just to make sure that something like this would not happen,” Mrs. Pelosi said.
Ms. DeLauro told The Washington Times that the FDA received a whistleblower’s report about Abbott last October.
“The FDA did not, in fact, interview the whistleblower until December,” she said. “They then did not recall the product until February. So, Similac, which has the biggest contract with the USDA for infant formula, has been recalled, except for some of the specialty products that they do that has, obviously, contributed to an infant formula shortage.”
In a statement, Abbott disputed that its formula was linked to infant illnesses.
“The February voluntary recall involved four complaints of Cronobacter sakazakii — a common environmental bacteria — in infants who consumed infant formulas produced in this plant. Two infants became sick; two tragically passed away,” the statement said. “The facts about what was learned about the cases of Cronobacter have not been widely communicated. After a thorough review of all available data, there is no evidence to link our formulas to these infant illnesses.”
— Alex Swoyer and Ramsey Touchberry contributed to this article.