US President Joe Biden has invoked a Cold War-era law to give baby formula manufacturers first priority from suppliers amid major shortages across the country.
Invoking the Defense Production Act, which was first implemented to support defence production during the Korean War, will require suppliers of formula manufacturers to fulfil orders from those companies before other customers, in an effort to eliminate production bottlenecks, the White House said on Wednesday.
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The administration’s response to the formula shortage will also include the Department of Defense contracting commercial planes “to transport products from manufacturing facilities abroad that have met Food and Drug Administration (FDA) safety standards,” the White House said in a statement.
The emergency actions are akin to those undertaken in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House added, dubbing the effort “Operation Fly Formula”.
While initially caused by supply chain blockages and a lack of production workers due to the pandemic, the formula shortage has been exacerbated by the recall of formula made by the Abbott manufacturer at its factory in Michigan after four infants who were fed its formula got bacterial infections and two of them died.
Regulators on Monday said they had reached a deal to reopen the plant, which was shut after the deaths. Still, Abbott says it will take eight to 10 weeks before new products begin arriving in stores.
Formula remains a necessity for many families in the US where breastfeeding is not an option.
Many mothers find themselves needing to go back to work soon after they give birth, given the lack of federal requirements for paid maternity leave. Currently, federal law in the US only guarantees protection for 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Joanna Hatch, a representative from the Madison, Wisconsin-based Mothers’ Milk Alliance, said the Biden administration’s response is a “short term solution” necessary to “help families that are in crisis right now”.
However, she said there needs to be more emphasis on creating “sustainable systems for families to be able to have the support they need … to have time to be with their babies to continue breastfeeding”.
“And then when breastfeeding doesn’t work to have safe alternatives, including donor milk and a safe supply of baby milk,” she said.
In a letter on Wednesday to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, Biden directed the agencies to work with the Pentagon to identify an overseas supply of formula that meets US standards so that chartered defence department flights can swiftly fly it to the US.
“Imports of baby formula will serve as a bridge to this ramped-up production,” Biden wrote.
The White House actions come as the Democratic-led House of Representatives approved two bills on Wednesday addressing the baby formula shortage, an issue that has been seized on by Republicans ahead of national legislative elections in November.
The US currently relies on domestic producers for 98 percent of the baby formula it consumes.