President Biden agreed Wednesday to invoke the Defense Production Act to ensure that US baby formula producers can acquire the material they need and launched a new US government airlift of formula from abroad.
The dramatic actions come after critics slammed Biden for not acting more quickly to avert empty store shelves across the country linked to the closure in February of an Abbott Nutrition factory in Michigan.
Biden resisted for about a week mounting pressure from Congress — including from Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — to use the 1950 law that allows federal interventions in private business decisions.
The Trump administration previously invoked the Defense Production Act to boost COVID-19 medical supplies in the early days of the pandemic.
The White House said in a statement that Biden “is requiring suppliers to direct needed resources to infant formula manufacturers before any other customer who may have ordered that good.”
It’s unclear if any specific companies will be targeted by the Defense Production Act invocation. Former President Donald Trump boasted that the mere threat of using the law quickly ensured corporate compliance for coronavirus needs.
The FDA this week allowed Abbott to reopen its Sturgis, Mich., factory, but the shortage of supplies is not expected to immediately be resolved.
The airlift of formula from abroad in the interim — dubbed Operation Fly Formula — will feature the military using contracted civilian planes to ferry the product to the US after the FDA this week eased import rules, which is significant because about 98% of formula that was consumed domestically was US-made.
“To speed up the import of infant formula and get more formula to stores as soon as possible, President Biden has directed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to use Department of Defense (DOD) commercial aircraft to pick up overseas infant formula that meets U.S. health and safety standards, so it can get to store shelves faster,” the White House said.
“DOD will use its contracts with commercial air cargo lines, as it did to move materials during the early months of the COVID pandemic, to transport products from manufacturing facilities abroad that have met Food and Drug Administration (FDA) safety standards. Bypassing regular air freighting routes will speed up the importation and distribution of formula and serve as an immediate support as manufacturers continue to ramp up production.”
The Biden administration is facing criticism for its response to the crisis — with Biden drawing heat for telling reporters Friday that authorities could only have dealt with the situation more effectively “if we’d been better mind-readers, I guess.”