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'Unconscionable': Pelosi vows action on infant formula shortages

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Friday that Democrats on Capitol Hill would take several steps to address an infant formula shortage as political pressure grows from parents struggling to find the critical nutrition for their children.

Pelosi, in a letter to congressional Democrats, said the shortage was “unconscionable and tragic.” Unlike other Democrats, Pelosi made no effort in the letter to credit the Biden administration for continuing to work with the FDA while taking other steps to resolve the shortage, which stems from a February shutdown of an Abbott Nutrition processing plant in Sturgis, Mich.

The company and plant are a major formula supplier in the U.S., including several specialty formulas used by thousands of infants, children and adults with metabolic and other disorders. FDA inspectors launched an investigation into complaints that four infants were hospitalized with rare bacteria after consuming formula produced at the plant. Two infants died. Abbott recalled several products in February.

Emergency funding: Pelosi said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the Appropriations Committee, is planning to bring an emergency supplemental spending bill to the House floor “to immediately address the infant formula shortage.” DeLauro and other committee leaders are planning congressional hearings on the matter. Democrats will also work on legislation to “grant emergency authority to the WIC program to address supply chain disruptions and recalls,” Pelosi said, referring to the federal nutrition program for low-income women, infants and children.

Pelosi noted that about half of all infant formula in the U.S. is purchased through WIC benefits and said the shortage was having “an especially dangerous toll on women and children from underserved communities.”

White House steps: Pelosi’s letter came shortly after the White House announced on Friday that Abbott has agreed to extend WIC rebates for all their contracted products until the end of August, following a letter requesting the change from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Abbott had previously been resistant to extending the deadline, according to sources familiar with the situation. The flexibility essentially means the company is paying for WIC families to get formula from its competitors — a massive financial and brand hit.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a Friday press briefing the WIC rebates and other moves to increase flexibility were the “top issue” formula manufacturers raised with President Joe Biden during a meeting on Thursday.

Psaki also said the Health and Human Services Department has launched a new web page, hhs.gov/formula, where parents can go to obtain formula and other guidance amid the shortages. She said the administration would announce additional steps in coming days.

Abbott responds: An Abbott spokesperson confirmed the agreement to POLITICO. The spokesperson also added the company has prioritized infant formula production at its Columbus, Ohio facility and air shipped millions of cans of infant formula powder into the U.S. from its FDA-registered facility in Cootehill, Ireland since the Michigan plant shutdown.

FDA import plans: FDA chief Robert Califf said on Friday the agency will announce plans next week to import more infant formula from abroad. Califf said FDA would “outlin[e] how manufacturers and suppliers abroad may import their products into the U.S. along with additional flexibilities for domestic manufacturers and suppliers.”

Former President Donald Trump weighed in on the issue Friday with a statement lambasting Democrats. He called the shortage a “national disgrace.”

USDA nutrition nominee: Biden is also planning to tap Stacy Dean, who has been running the Agriculture department’s formula response, to officially head the agency’s food and nutrition division, according to three people. She currently serves in the No. 2 nutrition role.

Helena Bottemiller Evich contributed to this report.

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