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House Oversight panel opens probe into baby formula shortage

Lawmakers have asked four key manufacturers for information on steps they are taking to address the nationwide issue.
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WASHINGTON — The House Oversight Committee is investigating the shortage of baby formula plaguing parents across the country and pressing key manufacturers for information on steps they are taking to address the issue.

In letters to the heads of four baby formula companies, Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney of New York, chairwoman of the committee, and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, chairman of the subcommittee on economic and consumer policy, requested documents and details about the shortage.

"The national formula shortage poses a threat to the health and economic security of infants and families in communities throughout the country — particularly those with less income who have historically experienced health inequities, including food insecurity," they wrote in letters sent to Mead Johnson Nutrition, Nestlé USAPerrigo Company and Abbott Nutrition.

These companies control nearly 90 percent of the U.S. market for baby formula, the lawmakers said.

The FDA investigated Abbott Nutrition's Michigan facility earlier this year after four infants who drank its formula contracted bacterial infections and became hospitalized. The infections may have also contributed to the deaths of two babies, the agency said.

Abbott, however, said that it conducted a thorough review and concluded there is "no evidence" that links their baby formulas to the illnesses of these infants.

Maloney and Krishnamoorthi asked Abbott for information on actions it has taken to resolve sanitation and hygiene issues in its facility, as well as measures it is taking to increase the supply of baby formula. They also asked the company to submit certain documents to the committee by June 2.

The lawmakers asked the other companies when they became aware of the formula shortage and steps they’ve taken to increase supply and lower prices, and to submit their responses by May 26.

"It is critical that your company take all possible steps to increase the supply of formula and prevent price gouging," they wrote in the letters.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told colleagues on Friday that the House planned to take action next week by voting on legislation designed to address supply chain disruptions and recalls of baby formula purchased through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, a grant program geared toward low-income women that has about 6 million participants and affects almost half of all babies born in the U.S. each year.

Quick passage of the bill, Pelosi argued, would empower the government to "relax certain non-safety-related regulations" in times of shortage to provide necessary nutrition to infants.

President Joe Biden said Friday the White House would be issuing guidance to all states regarding “possible flexibilities” to relax rules that currently limit formulas for purchase by those accessing WIC assistance. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the flexibility was intended to "get more formula on the shelves faster."

Abbott on Friday committed to providing rebates that would enable states to purchase baby formula supply from various manufacturers through the end of August.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to Abbott CEO and Chairman Robert Ford on Friday raising concerns about how the company was handling its rebates process for alternative products “on a month-by-month basis" that created "uncertainty" each month for the program and its participants.

NBC News has reached out to Abbott for comment.

Biden on Thursday spoke with major retailers and manufacturers, and the White House announced a series of measures to alleviate the shortage, including efforts to speed formula production and crack down on price gouging.