Inside the White House’s spring battle to contain the baby food crisis – CBS Detroit

(CNN) — By early May, U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials remained largely focused on ongoing problems at a baby food plant in Michigan. But the White House became increasingly preoccupied with a much larger problem: a shortage of infant formula that could turn into a full-blown crisis.

About that time, FDA officials briefed White House staff to discuss the situation, as an Abbott plant in Sturgis, Michigan, was still closed and still plagued with problems. At that meeting, details of which were previously undisclosed, FDA officials focused on the ongoing problems at the closed facility — including why it remained so difficult to get it back online — using highly technical language. Given that Abbott controlled about 40% of the formula market, the plant closure meant serious problems.

READ MORE: Supreme Court repeals New York gun law and extends gun rights

According to sources familiar with the discussion that day, the agency’s presentation lacked particular emphasis on how deeply Abbott’s problems could hurt the national baby food supply chain.

By this time, top White House officials were beginning to worry about that possibility. In that meeting, they made it clear to their FDA colleagues that it was time to seriously think about taking additional measures. It was a clear indication that by mid-spring, the White House was unsure that the work already being done by the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture alone would be enough to avoid a serious nationwide deficit.

“In early May, we’re really starting to roll up our sleeves and figure out what’s going on here,” a senior government official recalled in an interview with CNN. “This was a moment where I think a lot of people in all those conversations said, ‘We all think we should do a few more things now.'”

New details about the administration’s initial handling of the formula crisis could be crucial to understanding any future actions needed to reduce the deficit, especially given that the Abbott plant in Michigan recently announced it would resume production. shut down after severe flooding.

Interviews with current and former administration officials, including about that FDA-White House meeting in May, offer insight into two questions that have haunted the Biden administration: why the White House didn’t step in on its own with emergency measures until the formula shortage appeared to be gone. turned into a full-blown crisis and why President Joe Biden was not made aware of the gravity of the situation until months after the Abbott plant shut down. Former FDA employees also painted a picture of deep-seated issues at the agency that may have hindered understanding of a potential shortage of formulas underway, as well as the speed of the administration’s response.

Within weeks of the mid-spring discussion between FDA and White House officials, Biden was set to invoke the Defense Production Act to speed up formula production at home and announce multiple flights to ship large quantities of baby food from abroad. to bring in. He would also hold meetings with executives from major retailers and formula manufacturers.

But for parents and caregivers across the country, those May actions seemed far too late.

By this time, the knock-on effect caused by the formwork of the Michigan Abbott plant was coming under increasing consumer attention by the day, as parents and caregivers scrambled to buy baby food. Criticism and questions about the Biden administration’s handling of the situation also grew louder.

‘They did it, but I didn’t’

On June 1, Biden convened a virtual meeting in the White House with senior executives from baby food manufacturers. They told the president more than once that as soon as Abbott’s recalls were announced in February, they knew they had a serious problem.

The president then made a striking confession: Unlike those executives, it wasn’t until months after Abbott’s recall that he became aware of the seriousness of the formula shortage.

“They did it, but I didn’t,” Biden said. “I became aware of this problem sometime in – after April – early April, about how intense it was.”

The president added: “So we’ve done everything in our power from then on, and that’s all I can tell you now.

Those comments raised new questions about the federal government’s handling of the formula problem, especially given that White House officials had repeatedly insisted that the government had been working around the clock since February to address the situation.

When the issues with the Abbott Michigan became fully public in February, the administration began tracking the national baby food stock and sales data, known sources told CNN.

Here’s what they saw in those trends: March saw a significant drop in the availability of formula on store shelves, indicating that many items were out of stock. But that appeared to stabilize through the month of April, which officials say meant the first round of actions taken by the FDA and USDA to ramp up formula production and relax the rules that allowed formula families to purchase through a federal nutrition program, were starting to help.

But in May, stock interest rates started to fall again.

Meanwhile, the sales data kept by the administration told a different story: Baby food purchases remained largely at the same level as the previous year through March and April. Officials thought that meant families could still get the formula they needed during those months, even if certain products might be missing from store shelves. However, those products likely sold out quickly and didn’t hit store shelves long before being snatched away.

But that, too, started to change in May, when the administration saw a notable rise in sales levels.

READ MORE: Ethan Crumbley’s trial in Oxford school shooting postponed to January 2023

“You just suddenly see an elevated buying pattern build up in the first two weeks of May, and that’s where we all start to realize that something new is happening in the market and start to suspect that there’s a sudden demand shock that hit,” said the senior government official.

The confluence of shelf availability taking a plunge and sales numbers soaring was a bright red flag, the official noted: “We wanted to get a head start on what we were concerned about a new species entering the supply chain at the time.” added.”

Those new concerns in May could help explain why Biden said he wasn’t made aware of the severity of the formula shortage until sometime “after April.” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has rejected numerous questions from reporters about why he had not been informed until then and which of his advisers eventually filled him in.

An agency ill-equipped to predict food shortages

In mid-May, Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to support formula production and announced Operation Fly Formula, which instructed the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture to use the Department of Defense’s commercial aircraft. to bring in formulas from abroad. †

“The FDA has been a vital partner in the president’s goal to accelerate the availability of safe infant formulas, but ultimately it will be up to Abbott to end this shortage,” a White House official said in a statement. a statement to CNN.

Still, the FDA has come under fire for not acting fast enough when problems were identified at the Abbott plant.

Part of the reason for that, former FDA officials told CNN, is the lack of resources and data being provided to the FDA food tracking department.

The FDA has oversight of food and drugs, but former officials said food oversight at the agency is less sophisticated than on the drug side, and the agency simply isn’t equipped to predict potential food shortages. It is important that infant formula falls under nutrition.

For example, in the event of a potential drug manufacturing plant shutdown, the FDA has authorities that enable it to understand the implications of the supply chain and, as a result, potential problems that may arise regarding access to specific drugs such as a facility has been closed, the former officials said.

The FDA has asked Congress to expand those authorities, dating back to 2020, as the agency sought to better understand supply chain issues.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf publicly acknowledged those issues during a Senate hearing in May.

“We now have almost no authority other than to review the products as they come in,” Califf told lawmakers.

“It is now no longer necessary for companies to notify us when they have an impending shortage. There is no requirement that if they find a contaminant in a sample at their facility that has not yet shipped, they must let us know,” Califf said, pointing out that Abbott had detected cronobacter in samples of his formula but did not. … tell the agency.

The FDA launched a review of its actions leading up to the shortage, but insisted in a statement to CNN that the agency kept federal partners appropriately informed throughout the year.

“The FDA has worked both before and after the recall to address the issues with the infant formula supply chain and has informed our federal partners such as USDA, HHS and the White House of our concerns and efforts to address those challenges during that time. reduce,” said an FDA spokesperson.

“These interactions include clearly communicating our concerns about infant formula supply chain issues related to the pandemic and the far-reaching implications that the recall and closure of a facility of the largest U.S. formula supplier on the market would have,” added the spokesperson for it.

The Michigan plant reopened on June 4 after a federal judge signed an agreement between the FDA and Abbott.

But last week, the company again halted formula production after severe storms led to flooding in the city, including the factory.

“It’s disappointing,” Jean-Pierre said when asked about the latest setback. “What we can do is stay focused on what we’re going to do, which is to ramp up production, increase supply, and ensure that American families only have access to safe formulas. That is the focus for us. That’s what we check.”

MORE NEWS: Police looking for suspect after 25-year-old shot dead in Detroit

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Leave a Comment