President Biden on Wednesday said he was not personally aware of the severity of the infant formula shortage until early April, months into the shutdown of a manufacturing plant operated by Abbott Nutrition and subsequent recall of its products.
“I became aware of this problem sometime in early April, about how intense it was. We did everything in our power from that point on,” Biden said during a White House roundtable with formula manufacturers.
“I don’t think anyone anticipated the impact of the shutdown of one facility,” Biden added.
Biden’s comments stand in contrast to administration officials, who have said repeatedly that the White House has been working around the clock since February to address the issue.
The president’s admission came minutes after executives from some of the leading manufacturers said they knew the shutdown would have a significant impact on formula availability.
“We were aware of the general impact that this would have,” said Robert Cleveland, a senior vice president at Reckitt, in response to a question from Biden about whether the company was surprised the Abbott closure had “this profound effect immediately.”
“We knew from the very beginning this would be a very serious event,” Cleveland said.
Cleveland said when he heard about the recall and shutdown, he immediately reached out to the company’s retail partners like Target and Walmart to help them order all the available inventory on hand and push stock from distribution centers to store shelves.
“The very first thing we did when we heard about the Abbott recall was, we could foresee this would create a tremendous shortage. We significantly increased all our material orders,” said Murray Kessler, CEO of Perrigo, which makes store brand formula.
Abbott was not represented at Wednesday’s event, and the company did not return a request for comment. The White House has not said why Abbott was not represented.
A manufacturing plant in Michigan operated by Abbott Nutrition was shut down in mid-February following a Food and Drug Administration inspection that found unsanitary conditions and multiple strains of a bacteria that can be deadly to infants.
At the same time, the company issued a nationwide recall for all brands of powdered formula that had been manufactured at the facility.
Four infants have been hospitalized, and two died, after being infected with the bacteria. But the FDA has been unable to conclusively link the bacteria found in Abbott’s plant to the strains found in the sick babies.
Abbott is one of only four companies responsible for an estimated 90 percent of the U.S. formula market. When Abbott shut down its plant and recalled the formula made there, the effects cascaded down a supply chain that was already strained because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The FDA and Abbott are operating under a legal agreement to reopen Abbott’s facility as soon as it can meet the agency’s safety standards. An Abbott executive said that could happen this week, though there’s been no indication yet from regulators if that will happen.