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FDA head says baby formula shortage should ease 'within days'

Robert Califf gave the assessment shortly before a senior administration official said flights to import formula could start this weekend.

The head of the Food and Drug Administration said Thursday that concerned parents who have been struggling to find infant formula "should begin to see improvement" on store shelves "within days."

Testifying before a House Appropriations subcommittee, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said consumers should get some relief soon thanks to increased output from manufacturers and a boost in imports that's being aided by military planes.

"We're pulling a bunch of levers at the same time," Califf told Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La., when he was asked for a timetable for when parents and caregivers could see more formula in stores.

Hours later, an administration official told NBC News that flights to import formula will start as soon as this weekend. The first is expected to come from Zurich, carrying the equivalent of 1.5 million 8-ounce bottles of three formulas: Alfamino Infant, Alfamino Jr. and Gerber Good Start Extensive HA.

All three products are hypoallergenic for kids with cow milk allergies, the official said. The formula will be distributed widely after the plane lands in Plainfield, Indiana.

While formula production had already been slowed by supply chain issues because of the pandemic, the problem became worse in February after Abbott Nutrition shut down a key plant in Sturgis, Michigan, over a suspected link to the deaths of two infants from bacterial infections.

Califf said the FDA is still investigating.

The agency's inspection of the facility on Jan. 31 observed “significant operational deficiencies” and found a bacterium that could trigger severe foodborne illness in babies. Abbott, however, has said it conducted a review and found “no evidence” linking its baby formulas to the illnesses.

The FDA is working with Abbott to reopen the plant, which Califf said is "going well."

"Abbott has remediated a number of the issues, and we’re going to make sure it gets done as quick as possible,” he said, adding the plant will need to be up and running before the situation is completely alleviated.

"Within days it will get better, but it will be a few weeks until we’re back to normal," he said.

The White House has announced a series of measures over the past week to combat the problem, including cutting red tape to speed production and increase imports and calling for a crackdown on price gouging across the country.

President Joe Biden said Wednesday he was invoking the Defense Production Act to prioritize key ingredients for formula production and compel suppliers to provide the needed resources to formula manufacturers ahead of other customers ordering those goods. He also launched a program that will use U.S. military aircraft to import formula from abroad.

A senior administration official said Thursday that other formula manufacturers have told the White House that they have increased production by more than 60 percent since February, efforts that should be aided by the government's help with ingredients.

The House passed two bills Wednesday night aimed at easing the problem. One would allow more formula to be purchased with money from the federal program known as WIC, which aids low-income women, infants and children, and the other would provide the FDA with additional funding that could be used for more agency personnel, including inspectors.

The Senate passed the WIC bill by unanimous consent Thursday, sending it to Biden's desk for his signature. The FDA funding bill is expected to be considered next week.

Califf said the additional staffing would help stop similar problems in the future. As for the present, he said, there have already been signs of improvement.

“In the last week we’ve had more infant formula bought — between 11 and 19 percent — than what was bought in the month before the closure of the plant," he said.

Lawmakers expressed frustration when Califf declined to answer questions about why it took so long for the FDA to inspect the Sturgis plant, given that a detailed whistleblower complaint about conditions at the facility had been sent to the agency in October.

Califf has ordered an inquiry into why it took so long to dispatch inspectors and said he couldn't comment further "since it is ongoing." But, he said later, "we could do better than we did."