The FDA and baby food companies are ready for a congressional grill on Wednesday


The infant formula shortage is set for a key moment in the political spotlight.

At a congress audience Set for 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday, lawmakers are expected to grill individuals in the public and private sectors on the formula crisis. The hearing comes after a flurry of actions by the Biden administration and Congress, but with many store shelves still empty across the country.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and formula makers, including Abbott Nutrition (ABT), will likely face some tough questions about why parents in the U.S. struggle to feed their babies. The shortage began after Abbott revealed in February that he recalled three types of formulas that were made in a crucial Michigan factory.

“I’m focusing more on the FDA because I believe parents need answers,” U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) said in an interview.

McMorris Rodgers, the leading Republican on hand for questions on Wednesday, added that she also had plenty of questions for Abbott.

Shelves normally for infant formula lie nearly empty at a store in downtown Washington, DC, on May 22. (SAMUEL CORUM/AFP via Getty Images)

In a reportthe committee’s top Democrats added that “it’s unconscionable that families are struggling to find safe and affordable infant formula” and that the hearing would help lawmakers “as we work together to make sure this doesn’t happen.” happen again”.

FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf and two of his deputies will face off against lawmakers first. Last month, reports revealed that a blower informed the FDA in October of concerns about Abbott’s plant in Sturgis, Michigan, long before Abbott issued its voluntary recall and after bacterial infections linked to the formula sickened at least four babies.

“The FDA has a lot of explaining to do,” McMorris Rodgers said.

UNITED STATES - APRIL 27: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers R-Wash., leaves the House Republican Conference caucus meeting at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wa.) is the leading Republican to ask about the formula shortage on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Abbott recently announced that it had entered into a consent decree with the FDA to allow its Sturgis plant to resume production as early as next week. The company says that by the time the site is restarted, it will be another six to eight weeks before the new formula hits shelves.

“We must have confidence in the supply”

After Califf descended from the harness, the audience will then move on to business leaders with senior officials from Abbott (ABT), Gerber (NSRGY) and Reckitt (RBGLY), Mead Johnson’s parent company, set to testify.

“We all agree that we need to have confidence in the supply and Abbott has work to do to restore confidence,” McMorris Rodgers says.

The executives who will speak are Christopher Calamari, president of US and Canada Nutrition at Abbott; Scott Fitz, vice president at Gerber; and Robert Cleveland, senior vice president for nutrition at Reckitt.

During an appearance on Yahoo Finance last week, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) said the FDA should be blamed, but “Abbott Nutrition has been a really bad actor.” She maintains that the manufacturer knowingly put a contaminated product. “We shouldn’t be in the position where there are only four domestic infant formula producers,” DeLauro added. “There has to be competition.”

UNITED STATES - MAY 12: Rep. Frank Pallone, DN.J., Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, speaks at the conference committee on HR 4521, bipartisan innovation legislation and Competition, in the Russell Building on Thursday, May 12, 2022 The committee is tasked with reconciling the differences between the US Senate Competition and Innovation Act (USICA) and the Houses America COMPETES Act.  (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Rep. Frank Pallone (DN.J.) is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and is set to lead Democrats’ questioning on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

In an editorial from the Washington Post, Abbott CEO Robert Ford wrote to Americans to say “we’re sorry to all the families we’ve let down.” The company says it is committed to expanding in both capacity and redundancy to ensure a shortage never happens again, he added.

Measures to help in the immediate crisis

Wednesday’s showdown comes as infant formula has become a major issue. This weekend, a military plane carrying 78,000 pounds of infant formula landed in Indianapolis as the first shipment under President Joe Biden’s new Operation Fly Formula project. White House officials also announced a second flight would come soon.

A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transports pallets of Nestlé infant formula to Indianapolis during Operation Fly Formula, at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, May 22, 2022. US Air Force/Staff Sgt.  Jacob Wongwai/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.  IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CUSTOMER

A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transports pallets of Nestle baby formula bound for Indianapolis during Operation Fly Formula May 22 (US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Jacob Wongwai/Handout via REUTERS)

Biden invoked the Defense Production Act — which allows the president to compel private companies to manufacture goods — to help Abbott and Reckitt get more of the ingredients they need.

Congress also recently advanced two bills to address the shortage. The first measure had broad bipartisan support and gave poorer Americans greater flexibility on brands when purchasing formula through the Special supplementary nutrition program for women, infants and children, known as WIC. Biden signed that bill over the weekend.

A second measure would provide $28 million to the FDA largely to help the agency bolster its inspection staff. This bill has faced Republican resistance and is currently stalled in the Senate.

McMorris Rodgers is among a group of Republican lawmakers who have introduced its own bill rather, it would require greater FDA oversight and lower barriers to new types of formulas entering the market. The bill would also allow the FDA to temporarily waive labeling requirements for formulas imported from countries with similar safety standards.

She says her bill is a key step “that would really help in the immediate crisis”. She added: “I don’t think we should wait for the government to fly it here and figure out the distribution process.”

Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

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