US President Joe Biden defended his handling of a spiraling baby formula supply crisis Wednesday, insisting at a meeting with infant food executives that the White House is doing all it can.
A product recall and shutdown of a major plant by industry leader Abbott in February triggered a dramatic and ongoing reduction in availability of formula for parents across the country.
Increasingly, the issue is also turning into a political maelstrom for Biden, with critics questioning his command of the crisis.
Biden told reporters Wednesday that he was only informed about the looming problem in early April and that he'd pulled all the levers of government to resolve shortages ever since.
"I don't think anyone anticipated the impact of the shutdown of one facility," Biden said at a meeting with the executives from five companies helping to take up the slack caused by Abbott's problems.
"Once we learned the extent of it and how broad it was, it kicked everything into gear," Biden said.
However, the executives at the meeting contradicted this, saying they'd been able to tell immediately in February that a crisis was imminent.
"We knew from the very beginning," said one, Robert Cleveland, a senior vice president at Reckitt.
Pressed later by reporters about the White House response and Biden's command of the situation, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre insisted that staff had been taking action from "day one," even if Biden himself had not been involved initially.
Top executives from Reckitt, ByHeart, Bubs Australia, Gerber and Perrigo joined by video conference at the meeting featuring Biden, Health Secretary Xavier Becerra and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. The notable absence was anyone from Abbott.
- 'Frustrated' -
The dramatic absence of baby formula on supermarket shelves is compounding a growing sense of unease for ordinary Americans as they navigate an uncertain economic post-Covid pandemic path.
Unlike other shortages and supply bottlenecks, this one has less to do with inflation or the uneven return to economic health among US trade partners worldwide that has seen snags for Americans trying to get everything from foreign-made furniture to cars.
In this case, with Abbott controling about 40 percent of the US baby formula market, the order by health regulators to shut down its factory in Michigan for safety reasons was enough to single handedly spark the crisis.
As the crisis veers from a stress on families trying to feed their babies to a question of Biden's political competence, the administration is scrambling to show that it has answers.
In addition to asking rival domestic manufacturers to step up production, the White House is running what it dubs Operation Fly Formula, using military transport for speedy shipping from manufacturers abroad.
Earlier Wednesday, the Biden administration announced that two more flights would leave in just over a week from Melbourne, Australia, to Pennsylvania and California, delivering the equivalent of 4.6 million eight ounce (237 milliliter) bottles of Bubs Australia infant formula.
With US regulators cutting red tape to ease imports, Bubs Australia is planning to send a total of 27.5 million bottles.
Addressing the CEOs, Biden said, "There's nothing more stressful than the feeling you can't get what your child needs."
"That's why I've directed my administration to use every tool available to increase the supply," he added.
Ultimately, however, the United States needs to reform its market to broaden the supply chain, Biden said. "We need more entrants into the marketplace."
As the political temperature around the issue rises, Jean-Pierre stressed that Biden shares the worry of ordinary people.
"The president himself is frustrated by the situation we have and he is frustrated on behalf of American families," she said. "He gets what families are going through."