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FDA head says baby formula shortage should ease ‘within days’

Relief may be ahead for frantic families.

The head of the Food and Drug Administration said Thursday that concerned parents who have been struggling to find infant formula for their children “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 asked for a timetable on when parents and caregivers could see more formula in stores.

While formula production had already been slowed by supply chain issues due to 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, but the agency’s inspection of the facility on Jan. 31 observed “significant operational deficiencies” and found a bacterium that can potentially trigger severe foodborne illness in babies.

Abbott, however, has said that it conducted a review and found “no evidence” linking their baby formulas to the illnesses.

The FDA is working with Abbott to get the plant reopened, 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.

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden said 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.

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

Califf said the additional staff would help stop similar problems from happening 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 with Califf when he 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 a probe into why it took so long to dispatch inspectors to the plant and said he couldn’t comment further “since it is ongoing.” But, he added later, “we could do better than we did.”

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