President Biden said Wednesday that he did not become aware of the baby formula shortage until about two months after industry leaders knew they faced a major crisis, raising new questions about the administration’s monitoring and handling of the problem.
“I don’t think anyone anticipated the impact of the shutdown of one facility,” Biden said after the meeting, adding, “Once we learned the extent of it and how broad it was, it kicked everything into gear.”
But when reporters noted that the executives had said they immediately recognized the scope of the problem, Biden said, “They did, but I didn’t.”
The disconnect between the industry’s alertness to the looming crisis and the administration’s lack of awareness was hinted at during the panel discussion itself. Biden asked one panelist directly if his company had been surprised by the “profound effect immediately” of the Abbott closure.
“No, sir, we were aware of the general impact that this would have,” said Robert Cleveland, a senior vice president at Reckitt. “From the moment that that recall was announced, we reached out immediately to retail partners like Target and Walmart to tell them this is what we think will happen.”
It was unclear from the discussion whether the responsibility lay primarily with the industry, for not alerting federal officials of the imminent shortage; or with federal agencies that monitor the industry for not sufficiently conveying the problems to the White House; or with the White House itself, for not reacting faster to the crisis.
In recent weeks, Biden has scrambled to show he is on top of the matter. He invoked the Defense Production Act to ramp up domestic production of baby formula, and his administration has airlifted supplies from foreign countries to try to address the mushrooming crisis. But the declaration by industry leaders that the scope of the problem was immediately clear to them in February raises questions of why the president was slow to learn of the issue.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre did not offer more details on the timeline, but she said the administration launched a “whole-of-government approach” shortly after the Abbott plant shut down. The Food and Drug Administration closed the Abbott plant in February after a federal inspection found samples of a dangerous bacteria.
“We have been doing this whole-of-government approach since the recall,” she said at the White House daily press briefing after Biden met with the executives. “We have been working on this for months, for months. We have been taking this incredibly seriously.”
When pressed why Biden himself said he was unaware of the “whole-of-government approach,” Jean-Pierre said that Biden “has multiple issues, crises at the moment” and that administration officials often respond to problems before the president is aware.
“Seeing the empty shelves is unacceptable,” she said. “Seeing what families are going through is unacceptable. This is why we have been working 24-7 to make sure that we are using every lever at our disposal to deliver for the American people.”
Prior to Biden’s meeting, the White House announced its third and fourth round of formula shipments from overseas as part of its “Operation Fly Formula.”
Officials said United Airlines had agreed to transport Kendamil formula for free from Heathrow Airport in London to multiple airports across the United States over a three-week period. The formula will be distributed and available for purchase at selected U.S. retailers nationwide as well as online, the White House said.
All told, about 3.7 million 8-ounce bottle equivalents of Kendamil infant formula will be delivered, it said.
The White House also announced that two flights facilitated by the U.S. government would transport Bubs Australia infant formulas from Melbourne, Australia, to Pennsylvania and California on June 9 and June 11. That delivery will include about 4.6 million 8-ounce bottles, officials said.
Still, despite the all-hands-on-deck approach to replenishing the American supply, store shelves continue to be emptier: Data firm IRI reported Tuesday that the nationwide in-stock inventory figure was 76 percent for the week ending May 22, down from 79 percent the week before.
John Wagner and Laura Reiley contributed to this report.