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Biden works to fix US formula crisis as parents scramble to keep babies fed

President meets manufacturers to urge increased production amid shortage that weighs heavily on lower-income families

The baby formula shortage has had a cascade of effects.
The baby formula shortage has had a cascade of effects. Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA
The baby formula shortage has had a cascade of effects. Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA

Joe Biden has stepped up his administration’s response to a nationwide baby formula shortage that has forced parents into online groups to swap and sell to each other to keep their babies fed.

The US president discussed with executives from leading manufacturers Gerber and Reckitt how they could increase production and how his administration could help, and talked with leaders from retail giants Walmart and Target about how to restock shelves and address regional disparities in access to formula, the White House said.

The administration plans to monitor possible price gouging and work with trading partners in Mexico, Chile, Ireland and the Netherlands on imports, even though 98% of baby formula is domestically made.

The federal Food and Drug Administration is expected to announce soon plans for stepping up the import of infant formula from overseas.

But Biden does not intend to invoke the Defense Production Act to force an increase in production at this time.

Meanwhile, the US House oversight committee plans to investigate the problem and will seek records from the four largest manufacturers, ABC News reported on Friday, citing letters from the committee chair.

“The national formula shortage poses a threat to the health and economic security of infants and families in communities across the country – particularly those with less income who have historically experienced health inequities, including food insecurity,” the Democratic representative Carolyn Maloney, who leads the committee, wrote in letters to Abbott Nutrition, Mead Johnson Nutrition, Nestlé USA and Perrigo, ABC reported.

The problem is the result of supply chain disruptions and a safety recall, and has had a cascade of effects: retailers are limiting what customers can buy, and doctors and health workers are urging parents to contact food banks or physicians’ offices, in addition to warning against watering down formula to stretch supplies or using online do-it-yourself recipes.

The shortage is weighing particularly on lower-income families after the recall by formula maker Abbott, stemming from contamination concerns. The recall wiped out many brands covered by a federal program for women, infants and children (Wic), including food stamps, though the program now permits brand substitutes.

The Biden administration is working with states to make it easier for Wic recipients to buy different sizes of formula that their benefits might not currently cover.

About half of infant formula nationwide is bought by participants using Wic benefits, according to the White House.

Clara Hinton, 30, of Hartford, Connecticut, is among that group. She has a 10-month-old daughter, Patiennce, who has an allergy that requires a special formula.

Hinton, who has no car, has been taking the bus to the suburbs, going from town to town, and finally found some of the proper formula at a box store in West Hartford. But she said the store refused to take her Wic card, not the first time that has happened.

Hinton said she recently ran out of formula from an already opened can she got from a friend.

“She has no formula,” she said. “I just put her on regular milk. What do I do? Her pediatrician made it clear I’m not supposed to be doing that, but what do I do?”

In Utah, fellow Wic card holder Elizabeth Amador has been going store-to-store every day after she finishes work at a call center in Salt Lake City in desperate search of one particular formula her nine-month-old daughter needs.

She recently was down to only one can, but had four cans on Thursday. She said she won’t stop her cumbersome daily routine until she knows the shortage is over.

“It sucks, you know because of high gas prices,” Amador said. “We’re having to drive everywhere to find formula. It’s stressing.”

Some parents are also using social media to bridge supply gaps.

Ashley Maddox, a 31-year-old mother of two from San Diego, started a Facebook group on Wednesday after failing to find formula for her five-month-old son, Cole, at the commissary on the navy base.

“I connected with a gal in my group and she had seven cans of the formula I need that were just sitting in her house that her baby didn’t need any more,” she said. “So I drove out, it was about a 20-minute drive and picked it up and paid her. It was a miracle.”

She said there was already a stigma attached to being a non-breastfeeding mom and that the group has become supportive.