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The White House is working to respond to the baby formula shortage

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

The national baby formula shortage has been building for months, and the situation is now getting so dire, it's a top issue for the White House.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This is a process. We're working on it very, very hard. There's nothing more urgent we're working on than that right now. And I think we're going to be making some significant progress very shortly.

FLORIDO: The Biden administration is outlining several steps they're taking to get more formula on shelves faster as the problem threatens to grow into a major political problem, too.

NPR's Tamara Keith is following the response from the White House and joins us now. Hey, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

FLORIDO: What is the Biden administration doing about this formula shortage?

KEITH: Well, the administration launched a website - hhs.gov/formula - where parents can get information about how to find formula and to find advice for what to do if they can't find the brand or variety that their baby needs. The FDA commissioner said today that the agency will announce plans next week to help manufacturers import formula from abroad. President Biden met yesterday with formula manufacturers and also big retailers, and he pressed the manufacturers to step up production and asked the retailers what would help them keep their shelves stocked.

And he said that they asked for more flexibility with the WIC program. WIC is a program for low-income mothers and children. And it accounts for a huge amount of the formula that's consumed in the United States. And the administration is now urging states to relax their rules so people in the WIC program can buy different sizes or different brands of formula. About a dozen states haven't yet put those waivers in place, even though actually the administration started asking them to do this months ago.

FLORIDO: But parents are struggling to feed their babies now, Tam.

KEITH: Yeah.

FLORIDO: The White House is getting a lot of questions that it's having a hard time answering, isn't it?

KEITH: Yeah. This is not a new crisis. It goes way back to February, when a major Abbott factory in Michigan had to be shut down over safety concerns. The FDA is working with that company, but the factory is still closed.

And this week, it just became a big political issue. It's gotten a ton of media attention. Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress are calling on the administration to do something. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York, a Democrat, described her alarm in an interview that will air tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Some are having to choose between taking their children to the nearest emergency room just in desperation for formula or putting their kids on feeding tubes. Sellers are preying on vulnerable families, and there's scams and price gouging going on. So this current status quo is unacceptable.

KEITH: Senator Gillibrand and many others in Congress are calling for the president to invoke the Defense Production Act, as was done repeatedly during the pandemic. And White House officials say that they are looking into it and considering it, but that it probably would not help in the short term.

FLORIDO: Well, the question on everyone's mind is when is this going to get better? When will shelves be stocked? What does the White House have to say about that?

KEITH: They don't have an answer. Press Secretary Jen Psaki has been asked this question probably a dozen times in the past two days. And she hasn't been able to answer because there are just a lot of complicating factors, including it's just not clear yet how soon that Abbott factory can reopen and ramp up production. She says that they've made progress with other manufacturers that aren't as dominant in the market as Abbott, she said.

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JEN PSAKI: We've been working with manufacturers. And that has resulted in Gerber increasing production by 50%, on Reckitt increasing production by 30%, and over the last four weeks, more production of formula than there was in the four weeks prior and in comparison with last year.

KEITH: And even though there may be more, there's a scarcity problem. When people see empty shelves with something as essential as infant formula, the natural reaction is to start searching for and buying up as much as you can find so that you don't run out. But that leads to more empty shelves.

FLORIDO: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.