WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Friday urged Abbott Laboratories to do more to ensure low-income families on federal assistance have access to baby formula, amid a nationwide shortage.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the company should extend flexibility through the end of August for states and territories to obtain rebates to purchase alternative formulas to ensure supply for people on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Nearly half the infants in the program are covered by an Abbott contract.
“We further request that you continue these commitments until Abbott’s formula supply meets demand across the country,” Vilsack wrote in a letter to Abbott CEO Robert Ford that was released by the White House. “I believe Abbott must take these additional actions to support vulnerable WIC families during this challenging time.”
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden said he expects increased imports of baby formula to relieve the shortage “in a matter of weeks or less.”
“I think we’re going to be, in a matter of weeks or less, getting significantly more formula on shelves,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Friday.
He defended his administration’s response to the shortage, exacerbated in February after Abbott Laboratories recalled several brands of formula linked to rare bacterial infections in four children.
“If we’d been better mind-readers, I guess we could have,” he said in response to a question about why his administration didn’t act faster. “But we moved as quickly as the problem became apparent to us. And we have to move with caution as well as speed.”
Vilsack's letter to Abbott's Ford suggested administration frustration with a shortage that became acute after Abbott recalled several brands of its formulas earlier this year. The shortage has led to frantic parents hoarding formula and scouring store shelves to feed their children, posing yet another political headache for the White House.
“Going forward, Abbott must take every measure possible to ensure safe production of infant formula as well as a reliable supply, even in the face of disruption,” Vilsack told Ford.
Abbott said in a statement Friday that it’s been focusing on production from a facility in Cootehill, Ireland, to serve state WIC programs. The company has also prioritized formula production at its facility in Columbus, Ohio, to make the popular Similac brand of liquid formula, and other plants are running at full capacity to help replenish supply, it said in its statement.