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White House, Congress take steps to address infant formula shortage. Don't expect relief overnight

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 5/20/2022 Merdie Nzanga and Ledyard King, USA TODAY
Here's why there is a baby formula shortage in the US and what's being done about it
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WASHINGTON – As part of a broad federal response to the national shortage of baby formula, the House late Wednesday approved legislation to secure the supply chain and expand access for low-income families.

Passage of both bills came just hours after President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to speed up production of infant formula. He also took steps to expand the amount of formula the U.S. currently imports from foreign countries.

The House measure aimed at securing the supply chain now heads to the Senate where some lawmakers are pressing the administration to appoint a White House coordinator to work with infant formula producers so shelves can be restocked quickly. The Senate Thursday passed the bill designed to help low-income families which now heads to Biden for his signature.

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Still, It could be weeks before parents feel relief.

The baby formula shortage began in November, when about 11% of popular brands were out of stock, according to data analytics firm Datasembly. For the week beginning May 8, nearly 45% of baby formula was sold out at retailers across the U.S. because of recalls and supply chain strains. Retailers such as CVS, Target, and Walmart have put purchase limits on formula.

The shortage worsened with the February closure of an Abbott formula factory in Sturgis, Michigan, which was shut down amid recalls of contaminated formula.

In the meantime, parents are being advised to contact their pediatricians to discuss the best course of action for their child, which could entail seeking samples of new formula brands or donated pasteurized breast milk.

Here's what to know about how the latest steps Washington is taking could ease the formula crunch:

How quickly will formula be readily available again?

At least several weeks and maybe as long as two months.

Abbott has reached a consent decree with the Food and Drug Administration to reopen the Michigan factory provided the plant meets certain safety guidelines. But even with that agreement in hand, Abbott said in a statement it "will take six to eight weeks before product is available on shelves."

Where to find formula: Looking for baby formula? Here's where to search online

How severe is the problem?

Parents are scrambling to find formula from Michigan to Alabama. Families are experimenting with different solutions to keep their babies fed. And communities have pitched in to help alleviate the shortage.

"The need is just tremendous," said Benji Arslanovski, a Mansfield, Texas, restaurant owner who gave away free cans of formula. "The message is, 'Help your neighbor.'"

Two children were hospitalized at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, because of the ongoing national shortage of baby formula, a physician at the hospital told the Commercial Appeal.

Both children required a special, amino acid-based formula because they have short bowel syndrome – a condition meaning they are unable to efficiently digest food because they have fewer intestines.

Sick infants: Two children hospitalized in Memphis due to national formula shortage

While one child was discharged Tuesday, the other remained in the hospital in stable condition after receiving care for dehydration and complications from a lack of nutrients they would normally receive through specialized formulas produced by Abbott Laboratories.

"One of the things that I hope comes out of this is that I want people to say, 'This can never happen again,'" said Dr. Mark Corkins, a pediatric gastroenterologist at the hospital. "I don't want to do this again. Can Congress do something? Let's find a way to think about this. Smart people need to figure out a way to make sure this never happens again."

What's the White House plan to end the shortage?

Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to speed up the production of  formula and authorized commercial planes contracted by the Defense Department to bring back formula from overseas. Yet it’s unclear how quickly either plan will lead to more product on store shelves.

Olivia Godden prepares a bottle of baby formula for her infant son, Jaiden, Friday, May 13, 2022, at her home in San Antonio. © Eric Gay, AP Olivia Godden prepares a bottle of baby formula for her infant son, Jaiden, Friday, May 13, 2022, at her home in San Antonio.

Senior Biden administration officials said Thursday they continue to have “ongoing conversations” with baby formula manufacturers about which materials the Defense Production Act will be used for. Officials said requiring suppliers of labels to prioritize bottles for baby formula companies is one example of how the authority could be used.

White House officials also said they haven’t determined which manufacturing facilities in other nations to target. About 98% of baby formula in the U.S. is produced domestically, according to the White House. Any baby formula imported into the U.S. would be subject to Food and Drug Administration safety standards.

On Thursday, the Department of Defense (DOD) announced it would initiate its "Operation Fly Formula" to transport Nestlé S.A. formula from Zurich, Switzerland to Plainfield, Indiana.

The mission will transport the equivalent of up to 1.5 million 8-ounce bottles of three formulas—Alfamino Infant, Alfamino Junior, and Gerber Good Start Extensive HA. The Pentagon is "actively working the request to identify commercial aircraft," according to the administration.

How would the House bills address the crisis?

One of the bills, the Infant Formula Supplemental Appropriations Act, would provide $28 million to beef up the FDA's inspection staff at a time when supply chain issues and a lack of quality control have contributed to the crisis. It would also provide resources to prevent future shortages, according to House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

“Parents and caretakers across the country cannot wait – they need our support now," she said.

That bill passed 231-192 with 12 Republicans joining every Democrat in support.

Parents scrambling: Baby formula shortage costing parents: 'It's a desperate situation for many families'

The second bill, the Access to Baby Formula Act, would allow low-income families to buy infant formula with their federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits during a crisis, such as a supply chain disruption.

That bill passed overwhelmingly – 414-9. The nine voting 'no' were all Republicans: Andy Biggs of Arizona; Lauren Boebert of Colorado; Matt Gaetz of Florida; Louie Gohmert of Texas; Paul Gosar of Arizona; Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia; Clay Higgins of Louisiana; Thomas Massie of Kentucky; and Chip Roy of Texas.

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, said the legislation is crucial because nearly half of all infant formula is bought using WIC benefits and 89% of WIC participants purchased formula from the Abbott manufacturing plant that closed in Michigan.

What's the Senate doing about the shortage?

The Senate quickly passed the bill expanding WIC access but has not signaled when – or if – it would take up the House bill beefing up inspections.The bipartisan WIC legislation, led by Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow and Arkansas Republican John Boozman, was introduced to help needy families get access to more formula. 

“Moms and dads in the most prosperous country on earth should never have to worry about their ability to obtain something as vital as baby formula," Boozman said in a statement.

In addition, a group of Democratic senators is pressing the Biden administration to take several short- and long-term steps to improve the supply chain for infant formula. They want him to appoint a coordinator within the White House to work with formula makers directly and oversee the development and implementation of a national strategy.

"The national strategy should rapidly address immediate needs associated with the shortage, including identifying specific action, steps and deadlines for addressing the shortage," they wrote. "It should also provide critical information to parents and caregivers, including where to find formula, how to transition from one formula to another, if needed, and what to do if a medical or specialty formula is unavailable."

Contributing: Joey Garrison, Jayme Deerwester and The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: White House, Congress take steps to address infant formula shortage. Don't expect relief overnight

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