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US President Joe Biden orders Pentagon airlift to boost baby formula supply


US President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

US President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

US President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

US President Joe Biden will require suppliers of baby formula ingredients to prioritise formula manufacturers’ orders before any other customers in order to boost production to levels needed to address the shortage caused by the February shutdown of a Michigan factory.

The White House on Wednesday said Mr Biden will invoke the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era law which allows the president to require business to give contracts needed for national defence priority over others.

“The President is requiring suppliers to direct needed resources to infant formula manufacturers before any other customer who may have ordered that good. Directing firms to prioritize and allocate the production of key infant formula inputs will help increase production and speed up in supply chains,” the White House said.

In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Mr Biden asked both officials to “work expeditiously to identify any and all avenues to speed the importation of safe infant formula into the United States and onto store shelves”.

“I further request that over the next week you work with the Department of Defense to utilize contracted aircraft to accelerate the arrival of infant formula into the United States that meets our Government's health and safety standards,” Mr Biden said, adding that such actions “will ensure that we are using every available tool to get American families swifter access to the infant formula they need”.

Mr Biden added that such imports will act as a “bridge” until production reaches a level sufficient to alleviate the shortage.

The latter of Mr Biden’s request to Mr Becerra and Mr Vilsack is part of what the White House is calling “Operation Fly Formula”. A White House fact sheet announcing the plan said the Pentagon will use methods similar to those employed to move needed supplies during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic to “transport products from manufacturing facilities abroad that have met Food and Drug Administration (FDA) safety standards”.

According to the White House, the use of Pentagon-contracted aircraft will “speed up the importation and distribution of formula and serve as an immediate support as manufacturers continue to ramp up production”.

“The Administration remains in close touch with manufacturers and retailers to identify transportation and logistical needs to increase the amount and speed of FDA approved formula being shipped into the country, and ensure that formula is quickly moving from factories to retailers,” the White House said. “Today’s steps further underscore the Administration’s commitment to addressing the formula shortage quickly and safely, and the Administration will continue working overtime to get more formula to stores as soon as possible”.

Although formula made overseas is usually banned from import into or sale within the United States, the FDA has announced guidance for manufacturers to import formula that has not been produced for the US market.

The baby formula shortage was caused by the shuttering of Abbott Nutrition’s Sturgis, Michigan manufacturing facility in February following the deaths of two infants from rare bacterial infections. It’s not clear whether the infants who died or two others who became ill from the same type of infection got sick from formula made at Abbott’s plant, but the company nonetheless announced a recall of three types of powdered formula made there and stopped production so the FDA could investigate.

A preliminary FDA report found traces of a rare bacteria on surfaces in the plant, and FDA inspectors found other sanitation problems there.

The closure of the Abbott plant, combined with pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions experienced by the other three major formula manufacturers as they tried to increase their own supplies, led to shortages that have left shelves empty and parents scrambling across the United States.

And although Abbott and the FDA have announced an agreement to restart production at the Sturgis, Michigan facility, company executives say it will take weeks or months for supplies to return to normal after production resumes.

The announcement of Mr Biden’s decision to invoke the Defense Production Act comes just a day after House Democrats introduced a $28 billion emergency spending bill to meant to help the Food and Drug Administration restore the formula supply in as safe a manner as possible.

The Biden Administration has also been urging states to relax rules manufacturers must follow for their products to be eligible to be purchased as part of the USDA’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, otherwise known as WIC.

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An senior White House official who briefed reporters on the move last week said states can waive rules that restrict the sizes of containers eligible to be purchased using WIC funds, and stressed that allowing manufacturers to produce larger containers will get more formula on shelves faster.

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