The baby-formula blame game

Somehow, widespread stories of desperate parents unable to feed their infants did not inspire immediate federal action. On May 18th, three months after the Sturgis plant closure, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to compel suppliers of formula ingredients to prioritize deliveries to formula manufacturers and authorized Pentagon-contracted commercial aircraft to fly in formula from overseas. The same day, the House passed a supplemental appropriations bill giving the F.D.A. twenty-eight million dollars in emergency funds to address the shortage. (A hundred and ninety-two Republicans voted against the bill, including Morgan Griffith, of Virginia, a member of the Energy and Commerce committee who asked during Wednesday’s hearing why the F.D.A. and Abbott were not “working at breakneck speed” to address the crisis.) Asked at a press conference whether the Administration could have taken steps sooner, Biden replied, “If we’d been better mind readers, I guess we could have, but we moved as quickly as the problem became apparent to us.” (Abbott has a consent decree with the F.D.A. for a reopening of the Sturgis plant, tentatively slated for June 4th; from that point, it would take another four to eight weeks for formula produced there to hit store shelves.)

As several committee members pointed out on Wednesday, the meltdown at Sturgis is likely microcosmic of systemic, ongoing issues at Abbott, which, in 2010, recalled millions of units of Similac produced at the Sturgis plant after beetles and their larvae were found in the product. Stunningly, Christopher Calamari, a senior vice-president at Abbott, claimed at the hearing that he did not know of the whistle-blower’s October report until late April, when Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, shared it with the public. Kathleen Rice, a Democratic congresswoman from New York State, elicited the most memorable response when she repeatedly pressed Calamari on why the company had to rely on a whistle-blower to reveal safety shortcomings at a Michigan facility. “Representative,” Calamari replied, “this, um, the nature of this, um, process is, um, this, um, when it was made public, it was, um, was shared with F.D.A., and I was not, um, directly aware of the investigation until that time.”

The report is ghastly reading. The plant, the whistle-blower wrote, periodically failed to properly seal cans of formula, and, as a work-around, performed safety tests on empty cans instead.

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