President Joe Biden on Wednesday met with executives from baby-formula makers, with the huddle coming as new data suggest that the country’s formula shortage is deepening.
“There’s still a lot more to do, so I ask you to keep focused, stay focused, stay in high gear,” Biden said during the meeting.
“We can’t let up in the infant-formula market until it’s all the way back to normal. And that’s going to take a couple more months, but we’re making significant progress. “
Formula makers and retailers have also said it’s likely to take months to address long-running shortages.
An estimated 23% of powdered formula was out of stock in the week ended May 22 vs. 21% during the prior week, according to a Wall Street Journal report published on Wednesday that cited the latest figures from market-research firm IRI. The shortage is particularly hitting low-income families and states in the South and the Southwest, the report said.
Related: Baby-food sales surge amid the baby-formula shortage, as more parents consider transitioning babies out of the milk phase sooner
Biden and other administration officials met virtually with the formula execs in a meeting that the White House said was intended to focus in part on the administration’s “progress to accelerate infant formula production and ramp up imports of formula through Operation Fly Formula.” Operation Fly Formula refers to flights of formula from overseas aimed at relieving a shortage that has sent parents scrambling.
Ahead of the meeting, the White House announced plans for Operation Fly Formula’s third and fourth missions. United Airlines UAL,
has agreed to transport Kendamil formula for free from London’s Heathrow Airport to multiple airports across the US over a three-week period, and there are flights planned for June 9 and June 11 to transport Bubs Australia formula from Melbourne to Pennsylvania and California.
The execs that met with the president were Tarun Malkani, CEO of Nestle’s NESN,
Gerber business; Murray Kessler, CEO of drug maker Perrigo PRGO,
which has a business that makes 18 national store-brand formulas; Robert Cleveland, Reckitt’s RKT,
senior vice president for its North American and European nutrition business; Kristy Carr, CEO and founder of Bubs Australia BUB,
; and Ron Belldegrun, CEO and co-founder of ByHeart, a Pennsylvania-based formula maker that launched about six years ago.
Reckitt’s Cleveland said during the meeting that the maker of Enfamil has optimized its portfolio to “focus on those products that move through our plants the fastest,” as well as worked with retailers such as Walmart WMT,
and Kroger KR,
so its “trucks are unloaded first and feedings get to shelf faster, because it’s not just about more, it’s about how much more we can put in shelf.”
“Since the beginning of the year, we have been able to increase the amount we’ve put to market by over 30% and to do it 40% faster,” he added.
Carr, speaking from Australia, said it was “around four o’clock in the morning” in her country, but the Bubs runs a “24-7 operation,” and I think most of the Bubs team now feel like they’re on Washington, DC, time so that’s perfectly OK. “
No executives from Abbott ABT,
appeared to take part in the meeting. The February closure of that company’s infant-formula plant in Sturgis, Mich., After Food and Drug Administration officials found a potentially deadly bacteria there exacerbated existing shortages created by supply-chain problems during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden later told reporters that he became aware of the seriousness of the shortage in early April and his administration did everything in its power to address the problem from that point on. That comment came after a reporter noted that Cleveland, the Reckitt executive, said his company was aware right away about the impact of Abbott’s February plant closure and recall.
White House press secretary Karen Jean-Pierre said the FDA and USDA have been working on the formula issue since February, but she declined to give details on why Biden wasn’t notified until April.
“The president is frustrated himself about the situation, about the issue that we have,” she said as reporters peppered her with questions during a press briefing. “He’s frustrated on behalf of American families.”
Other actions that the administration has taken due to the formula shortage include invoking the Defense Production Act and boosting imports by having the FDA exercise enforcement discretion with respect to certain requirements for formulas.
Related: House lawmakers take on baby-formula shortage: ‘We expect answers from the FDA, Abbott’
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Separately, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack gave a speech on Wednesday announcing details of a US Department of Agriculture framework that aims to transform the nation’s food system after the USDA said last year that it would put more than $ 4 billion toward strengthening supply chains. Vilsack talked up $ 2 billion in funding for shoring up the food system.
US stocks SPX,
closed lower Wednesday as a new month kicked off. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 both gained less than 0.1% in May.
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Also: Biden on baby-formula shortage: ‘There’s nothing more urgent we’re working on than that right now’