Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials to Address Infant Formula Shortage
3:02 P.M. EDT
MR. MUNOZ: Hi, everybody. Thank you for joining us this afternoon for a call discussing new additional actions President Biden is taking to expand availability of infant formula supply in the United States, especially following his meeting with manufacturers and industry this afternoon.
A reminder this call and the factsheet that you just received are embargoed until the conclusion of the call.
On today’s call, we have [senior administration official] and [senior administration official].
As a reminder, this call is attributable to senior administration officials. And we’ll have time for questions at the end.
With that, I will kick it to [senior administration official].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thanks, Kevin. And thank you all for joining us today to discuss actions that the President has announced to address the infant formula shortages in the country.
As you are all no doubt aware, on February 17th, the largest infant formula manufacturer in the country, Abbott Nutrition, initiated a voluntary recall of several of their lines of formula. The impacted formula was immediately pulled from the shelves and taken out of warehouse inventory across the country, and production at Abbott’s manufacturing facility in Sturgis, Michigan, was halted.
This voluntary action came following concerns about bacterial contamination at the facility after four infants became ill and two died in late 2021 and early 2022.
Over the last several months, the federal government has worked to address the production shortfall brought about by the recall. As a result of our ongoing work, more infant formula has been produced in the last four weeks than in the four weeks that preceded the recall, despite the fact that one of the largest infant formula production facilities in the country has been offline during that period.
But we also know that families across the country remain concerned about the availability of infant formula, especially families that rely on specialty products that are harder to substitute and some of which are only produced at the Michigan facility.
So, today, President Biden spoke with retailers and manufacturers, including the CEOs of Walmart, Target, Mead Johnson, and Gerber to talk to them about the work they are doing and call on them to do all they can to help families purchase and access infant formula.
The President discussed with Mead Johnson and Gerber their ongoing efforts to increase production. Their work has made up for the loss of production by Abbott. And the President talked to them about other ways the administration can help on top of the actions that are being announced today.
When the President was speaking to the CEOs of Walmart and Target, he focused on issues specific to retailers and how they are working to stock shelves, including in rural areas and regional disparities they might be seeing.
The President similarly asked what more his team and all of us can do to help move product and get more product to these communities.
Building on that work, the President today also announced several additional steps to get more infant formula onto store shelves as quickly as possible without compromising safety.
Both steps include, first, cutting red tape to get more infant formula to the shelves by urging states to provide flexibility in the WIC program, which can be a key driver of some supply disruptions; second, calling on FTC and state attorneys general to crack down on price gouging and unfair market practices related to the sales of infant formula, like third-party sellers reselling infant formula at steep markups; and third, increasing the supply of infant formula through increased imports.
These are important actions that build on the work the administration has done to date. And we will continue to find other ways to support the safe and rapid increase in production and distribution of infant formula.
So, with that, [senior administration official] and I would be happy to take your questions.
MR. MUNOZ: Thanks, [senior administration official]. First question — we have time for just a couple — Kaitlan Collins, CNN.
Q Thanks so much. I’m wondering what the retailers and manufacturers told the President today about how long they expect this to last. And when do you think — what is your assessment of when they will restart production at this facility?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so I’m not able to share any additional details about the specific conversations. I will reiterate that they were productive and encouraging conversations about all the work that we can do together to support moms and families during this time. And we do not today have an estimate for when Abbott’s facility will come online.
But as we have said, this administration is working around the clock to do everything we can to bring as much production to market while protecting the safety and wellbeing of families.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In addition, the manufacturers reassured us that they were going to do all that was necessary to maintain increased production levels at all their facilities to make sure that they are able to meet the needs of the market at this time.
MR. MUNOZ: Great. Let’s go to Jeff Mason at Reuters.
Q Thanks very much. Can you give us more details on what you mean by increasing imports? The factsheet indicated that there will be an announcement about that in the coming days, if you’re able to give any more details on that.
And do you have a sense of — the one piece of the factsheet that I found hard to understand was the WIC program that you also referred to. What impact will those changes have?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. I can take those in turn.
On the FDA action, I don’t have too much more to share. FDA is working now to make an announcement very soon about how we will be able to import more formula from abroad to lessen challenges for families, and we will certainly be in touch as we have additional details to announce there.
On the WIC program, let me start, and then [senior administration official] can talk a little bit about how this affects the supply chain as a whole.
But as you all likely know, the WIC program supports the purchase of formula and other nutrition products for families of young children and moms.
There are, in normal times, significant rules about what products families can purchase. And there are also rules about how suppliers that participate in the WIC program have to maintain stock of particular supplies in order to participate in WIC.
And so, USDA has been working since February with states to relax those rules and make it easier for families to substitute products and for suppliers and retailers to more flexibly participate in the WIC program.
And USDA will be urging all states to take up that — to take up those flexibilities and really alleviate burdens across the supply chain that can, again, make it difficult for families and retailers.
[Senior administration official], anything you want to add there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. On the production side, what that effectively does is: When you decrease the variability and the complexity of products that a manufacturer has to make, they can institute a lot more scale efficiencies in their production process.
So if you have states go from saying “We’ll only let you buy 12 ounces” for your WIC participants, and instead saying “You can buy 32-ounce containers,” then they can run more efficient production lines and only have to produce a lot of 32-ounce containers instead of 12-ounce containers. That just leads to faster production out of plants, quicker delivery of product from factory floor to store shelves.
And it’s important here that the states take actions that drive kind of standardization in the market like that to decrease the manufacturing complexities.
MR. MUNOZ: Let’s go to Hannah Brandt at Nexstar.
Q Great. Thanks for taking my question. There are a lot of lawmakers on both sides calling for the President to invoke the Defense Production Act. Is there any talk about that? Is that a future action he might take if this continues?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, I can take that one. You know, as we said at the top, we remain 100 percent focused on this issue. We know it’s urgent. We know it’s important to families and to vulnerable children. So we’ll continue to explore every option at the — on the table and look at any lever we can pull to address the situation.
We know that the recall has impacted availability of formula. And as you’ve heard us talk about today, we have taken measures — the FDA has taken measures, USDA has taken measures, and the companies have all taken measures here to ramp up production quickly. We feel — we are reassured that the companies now are back at production levels that are above the production levels that they had been right before the February 17th recall took place. But, again, we’re going to keep every option on the table and keep exploring things we can do.
MR. MUNOZ: All right, and we have time for a couple more questions. Let’s go to Kevin Robillard at Huffington Post.
Q Hi, guys. Thanks for taking the questions. Thanks for doing the call. Why did it take so long for this issue to sort of come up the White House’s radar? This has obviously been building for quite some time, and it really has been, you know, pretty acute since the recall happened. So why wasn’t — why weren’t steps being taken, sort of, more proactively over the past few months to alleviate this problem?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so I can assure you that this is not new to the White House’s radar. We have been working on this issue since the very beginning, in the days leading up to the recall and ever since then.
So, you know, since mid-February, we have been working closely with USDA and FDA on a suite of actions that they have taken, which is why we are able to say today that production today is — you know, exceeds production in the period just before the recall was — the recall was initiated.
As just some examples of the ongoing work we have been doing: We’ve, throughout this period, been cutting red tape to expedite the import of infant formula for other countries. Since February, we have been working with retailers to impose purchase limits, prevent the possibility of hoarding. Again, we have had ongoing work with other — with all manufacturers of infant formula to bring product to market, and we have really seen that pay off. And, you know, it is helping to mitigate some of the challenges that we might otherwise be facing.
At the same time, we absolutely recognize the frustration that American families are feeling right now. And that’s why the President has acted to direct the administration to pull additional levers and take additional action to make more supply available as quickly as possible. He’s leading with action, not words. And that’s the package of announcements you’re seeing today.
MR. MUNOZ: Thanks. Last question. Let’s go to Kathryn Watson at CBS.
Q Hi. Thank you so much for doing this call. If production has reached the levels — reached or surpassed the levels of where it was before this recall, when can parents expect to see that result on the shelves? How many weeks, days, months are we talking about until the — you know, that supply is actually felt?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, we absolutely recognize the frustration of parents and families. I am expecting my second child in June and, you know, feel this issue very, very acutely. So, you know, this is — we know that the American people need to see product on the shelves consistently and that this is a critical issue. That’s why we are announcing this package of actions today to speed things up.
I don’t have a particular timeline for you. But we are — we are working closely with partners across the federal government to mitigate these shortages and improve experiences for American families as they’re shopping for formula across the country.
MR. MUNOZ: Thanks, [senior administration official], and thanks, [senior administration official]. Again, thank you everybody for joining this call. When we get off this, both the contents of the call and the factsheet are lifted. And reach out to me with any questions.
3:17 P.M. EDT