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The FDA announces plans to ease the shortage of baby formula


There may be relief for parents anxiously coping with a national shortage of infant formula. Abbott's one of the nation's largest manufacturers, and it's reached an agreement with the FDA to get its Michigan factory up and running again. I spoke with Meredith Lee, food and agriculture reporter at Politico, about the next steps.

MEREDITH LEE: The FDA says Abbott has, quote, "agreed to take corrective actions" as part of this deal to reopen a key infant formula plant in Michigan. That includes stricter requirements for testing products and also notifying the FDA of any future contamination. The federal government, as part of the agreement, also said infant formula products at the Michigan Abbott plant were, quote, "adulterated" because they were made under insanitary conditions and they violated current good manufacturing practices. Supply chain issues are also contributing to the shortages we're seeing today. Biden administration officials say they're working with retailers and manufacturers to move infant formula to parts of the U.S. with the most severe shortages.

MARTINEZ: What else is the FDA doing to try and help ease the shortage?

LEE: The FDA announced new efforts to ease some of its incredibly strict import restrictions on formula from overseas. Ninety-eight percent of all infant formula purchased in the United States is made here, but that's become an issue as the market has grown increasingly consolidated over the years. Abbott is now one of only four major companies that dominate the U.S. infant formula market, and, as we've seen, any disruption to one company or one plant can drive the kinds of shortages that we're seeing now. So administration officials say allowing more formula into the U.S. on a short-term basis can help fill these supply gaps, but that process will take weeks.

MARTINEZ: OK, now, how is the Biden administration responding to the shortage?

LEE: The White House and FDA say they're continuing to work with formula manufacturers and retailers to boost U.S. production and work through supply issues. They said addressing the shortages is a top priority for the president. The one thing I will note is that the White House isn't being very forthcoming about the timeline for its response. The White House press secretary told reporters yesterday that the administration had been working on this 24/7 since February, but my Politico colleague reported that a whistleblower flagged food safety violation concerns about this Abbott plant to senior FDA officials back in October. So the process has been slow so far. Last night, I asked a senior administration official when the FDA told the White House about any issues regarding this Abbott plant and any concerns about potential shortages, but the official said they wouldn't comment on internal communications.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. The thing every parent probably wants to know is, how long will it take for the supply to just return back to normal and - expect to see formula back on shelves?

LEE: Right. Abbott says, after FDA approval, the company could restart the Michigan plant within two weeks, and formula could be back on shelves in six to eight weeks. Administration officials have said it could take months for any Abbott formula from the plant to reach consumers. In the meantime, government officials are working with the three other formula companies to boost supplies.

MARTINEZ: All right. Meredith Lee of Politico, thanks a lot.

LEE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.