“We recognize that this is certainly a challenge for people across the country, something the president is very focused on, and we’re going to do everything we can to cut red tape and take steps to increase supply,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday.
Some House Republicans argued that legislators should redirect funds allotted to help Ukraine amid a Russian invasion and place some of that money toward finding solutions to the shortage caused by a massive recall of formula after reports that four infants in three states fell ill with bacterial infections. They have also accused the Biden administration of prioritizing providing formula to migrant mothers arriving at the southern border after images of stocked shelves and pallets of baby formula were taken by border agents at processing centers.
Meanwhile, House Democrats have scheduled several hearings for this month to press Food and Drug Administration officials on what happened, and they plan to announce legislation that they say could soon help restock formula on store shelves.
“Why is this such a shortage? What happened? What did the FDA do or not do? And what’s the deal on the supply chain?” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday about what Democrats hope to learn at the hearings.
The shortage is just the latest example of the challenges Democrats in particular must confront ahead of the midterm election as rising prices and supply chain issues continue under their watch. Republicans hope to capitalize on framing Democrats as a party that cannot govern to win over voters, especially moderates who have been financially squeezed.
At issue are supply chain problems that linger from the pandemic and a recall in February by Abbott Nutrition, forcing many stores to ration how much formula one person can buy at a time. According to a report by retail insights group Datasembly, the amount of out-of-stock baby formula across the country sat at 43 percent as of the end of last week, more than a 10 percent increase from the same point last month.
It marks a stark significance compared with out-of-stock data from earlier this year when the number fluctuated between 2 to 8 percent.
Roughly half of infant formula is purchased by about 1.2 million people using a federal assistance program known as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Biden administration said in a briefing Thursday. The Agriculture Department is now encouraging states to allow recipients to use their benefits on a wider array of formula products, as well as urging states to relax requirements on stores participating in the WIC program.
In response to reports of price-gouging on formula, the Justice Department is also now working with state attorneys general to push them to monitor price-gouging on the formula market and Biden on Thursday also asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate reports of price-gouging.
The administration is also working to increase imports of formula — the United States produces 98 percent of its formula supply, according to an administration fact sheet — probably from countries like Chile, Ireland, Mexico and the Netherlands.
Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon, Psaki said Biden had been briefed on the formula shortage before this week, and she also stressed that the administration understands the magnitude of the crisis.
“Our message to parents,” she added, “is that we hear you. We want to do everything we can, and we’re going to cut every element of red tape to help.”
Psaki and other senior administration officials, however, were unable to provide a specific date when parents should expect formula to be back on shelves.
Republicans have painted the administration as callous, waiting until the shortage became untenable to finally address it. Republicans seized on an Air Force One briefing by incoming White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, where she admitted not knowing who in the administration is responsible for finding a solution between awkward laughs.
“We heard laughter yesterday. That is laughing in the faces of mother and fathers across this country. There is a reason why the Republican Party is the party of parents. It’s not just because of education, it’s because we’re advocating for families across the country,” GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said.
Senate and House Republicans ignited the issue upon their return to Washington this week, with senators from the more conservative Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to moderate Mitt Romney (R-Utah) both sending letters to FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf demanding answers.
Trump’s staunchest supporters took to the House floor Tuesday to demand that fellow lawmakers prioritize helping American families over Ukrainians. Their “America First” argument grew after Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) claimed in Facebook Live videos that the administration was “sending pallets of baby formula to the border” after obtaining pictures from a border agent working at the Ursula processing facility in McAllen, Tex.
“Food security is national security, and right now we have a food security crisis for the most vulnerable of Americans, the ones that we cherish the most, and that’s our babies,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said Thursday.
Democrats were quick to respond to mounting attacks, pointing to Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) first raising the issue in March and obtaining a whistleblower complaint within Abbott that alleged the formula recall could have been prevented if it were not for the company falsifying records of test seals and releasing untested formula as well as its lax clean workplace procedures. The formula resulted in four hospitalizations and two infant deaths between September and February.
“The reason we’re here is because the FDA took the steps to ensure that babies were taking safe formula,” Psaki said, striking a defensive note. “There were babies who died from taking this formula, so they were doing their jobs.”
DeLauro plans to question the FDA administrator next week when he testifies before the House Appropriations Committee, which she chairs. An Energy and Commerce subcommittee will also investigate the matter beginning with a hearing two weeks from now.
“We make sure it never happens again, and that’s important. But right now, the baby’s crying, the baby’s hungry — we need to address it right now,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said during her weekly news conference Thursday. She also anticipates legislation to be introduced by DeLauro in the coming days.
Republicans demanded that she take up legislation introduced Wednesday by freshmen Reps. Stephanie I. Bice (R-Okla.) and Randy Feenstra (R-Iowa), which would force the FDA to inform Congress about its standards to regulate domestic infant formula and apply it to imports. The United States currently does not import infant formula.
“All too often Republicans are called pro-birth or are told that we care about children before they are both,” Bice said. “This is simply not true. In fact, it is important that we continue to support and advocate for policies that help Americans from birth throughout their lives.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.
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