Biden said he was made aware of the baby formula shortage only in April

Business Insider US
President Joe Biden spoke at a roundtable with baby formula manufacturers on Wednesday.
  • President Joe Biden said he wasn't aware of the baby formula shortage crisis until April.
  • Manufacturers said they started warning retailers in late February, after a major plant closed.
  • Biden announced that the US would fly in over 300,000 kilograms of baby formula from overseas next week.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider.

President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that he wasn't aware of how critical the baby formula shortage was until April, months after the nation's largest formula manufacturers warned retailers of an impending crisis.

"I became aware of this problem sometime in April, or in early April, about how intense it was. We did everything in our power from that point on," Biden said at a White House roundtable session with infant formula manufacturers.

"I don't think anyone anticipated the impact of the shutdown of one facility," he added.

The shortage has resulted from the February shutdown of a leading formula manufacturing plant owned by Abbott Nutrition. It was closed after strains of bacteria that are potentially deadly to infants were discovered at the facility.

Abbott issued a safety recall of its products that month.

However, Biden's comment on Wednesday contradicted the claims made at the roundtable by manufacturers, who said they knew that the plant's closure would cascade into a significant shortage.

"We were aware of the general impact that this would have," said Robert Cleveland, senior vice president at formula maker Reckitt, when asked by Biden if the crisis had been anticipated. 

Cleveland said his company immediately reached out to retailers such as Walmart and Target to warn them, and told them to push their remaining formula inventory to shelves "as fast as possible."

"We knew from the very beginning this would be a very serious event," Cleveland added.

Murray Kessler, CEO of store brand formula maker Perrigo, said: "The very first thing we did when we heard about the Abbott recall was — we could foresee that this was going to create a tremendous shortage. We significantly increased all our material orders."

According to Biden, Abbott's output accounts for 40% of the infant formula market in the US. No representatives for Abbott were present at the roundtable.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, later said at a press briefing: "We understand Abbott is working hard to get back to safely making infant formula, that process is ongoing and should be kept between them."

When asked about Biden's comment on when he knew about the shortage, Jean-Pierre rejected the idea that the administration had taken too long to act.

"We have been working on this issue since day one of the recall," she told reporters.

When reporters pressed her further on what Biden had said at the roundtable, Jean-Pierre responded: "He spoke to that himself, so I'm going to let that stand."

"Let me just say that the President is frustrated himself about the situation, about the issue that we have, and he's frustrated on behalf of the American families," Jean-Pierre added. "He is doing everything he can to make sure that we take action and we have been doing that 24/7. He gets what families are going through."

At the roundtable, Biden also announced the next stage of "Operation Fly Formula," in which 680,000 pounds (just over 300,000 kilograms) of baby formula — or 8.3 million standard baby bottles' worth of powder — will be airlifted from the UK and Australia to the US starting next week.

He added that more such shipments are set to arrive in the next few weeks.

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