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Biden meets with baby formula executives, says shortage to extend 2 more months

Manufacturers said they were aware of the severe impact of the Abbott plant shutdown in February, but Biden said he wasn't notified until April.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden met with baby formula manufacturers Wednesday and said it will be “a couple more months” until supply is fully “back to normal.”

“We still have work to do,” Biden said at the roundtable, but “we’re making critical progress today.”

Biden said he wasn't notified about the shortage concerns until April, while company executives said they knew in February that closing the Abbott Nutrition facility in Michigan would lead to major supply issues.

“They knew, but I didn’t,” Biden told reporters.

The timeline conflicts with the administration's insistence that it has been focused on the baby formula shortage with an "all of government response" since the Food and Drug Administration shuttered an Abbott manufacturing plant in February because of safety concerns.

At a briefing after the meeting, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked repeatedly about the administration’s reaction time given the industry’s earlier awareness of the problem.

“We’ve been working on this for months and months,” Jean-Pierre insisted. She said she hadn’t seen Biden’s earlier comments to reporters or spoken to him about his remarks. “What I’m trying to say is that his team on very high levels, who run his policy offices, who run his departments, have been working on this since day one.”

During the roundtable, Biden discussed steps his administration has taken to increase production through the Defense Production Act and to import formula from abroad, while company executives provided updates on their efforts to ramp up production in the U.S.

Robert Cleveland, a top executive at Enfamil manufacturer Reckitt, said the administration's efforts help procuring necessary supplies has helped it speed up both production and the time it takes to get its formula on store shelves.

"We believe we’re now delivering product to market 40 percent faster than we were" before the Abbott recall that spurred the shortage, Cleveland said.

In remarks echoed by other executives, Cleveland said the industry took action on its own after the Abbott plant was shuttered.

“We were aware of the general impact that this would have,” he said.

Other participants included representatives from Gerber, Perrigo, Bubs Australia and ByHeart, along with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Abbott wasn’t involved in Wednesday's meeting.

Ahead of the meeting, the White House announced additional "Operation Fly Formula" flights bringing imported formula to the U.S. United Airlines will ship 3.7 million 8-ounce bottles of Kendamil formula at no cost from London to the U.S. starting June 9, the White House said. The formula will be available in Target stores in the coming weeks.

Also on June 9, the U.S. will fly in a shipment of Bubs Australia infant formula from Melbourne to Philadelphia, followed by another plane full of formula to California on June 11. The White House said that the flights will carry a total of about 4.6 million 8-ounce bottles and that additional deliveries of Bubs Australia formula will be announced in the coming days.

They will be the third and fourth shipments of infant formula from overseas since Biden authorized a program to use commercial aircraft to speed imports of the products. The effort has brought in the equivalent of 1.5 million 8-ounce bottles of infant formula so far, the White House said.

Last month, Biden announced steps to address the shortage, which has gone on for months. He also invoked the Defense Production Act to boost supply, which has allowed the federal government to prioritize key ingredients for formula production and push suppliers to provide needed resources to formula manufacturers ahead of other customers ordering such goods.

The shortage, which started early in the coronavirus pandemic, was worsened in February when the FDA announced it was investigating consumer complaints about powdered baby formulas made by Abbott Nutrition at a facility in Sturgis, Michigan.

The FDA said it was looking into bacterial infections in four infants who drank the formula produced there. All four babies had to be hospitalized, and the infection “may have contributed to the deaths of two patients,” the agency said.

Abbott has maintained that it conducted a thorough review of the complaints and concluded that there was “no evidence” linking their formulas to the illnesses.

The FDA is working with the company to get the plant back open, which government officials have said is critical to fixing the supply problem.

Meanwhile, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Wednesday that the federal government is devoting $2.1 billion to strengthen the nation's food supply system, which was negatively affected by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the coronavirus pandemic.

The Agriculture Department said it is providing the money for independent meat and poultry processing projects and to support jobs in the processing sector, as well as to assist farmers in making the transition to organic production and to support urban agriculture, such as community gardens in cities. It will also finance efforts to provide healthy food to underserved communities and to reduce and prevent food waste.