The Biden administration on Wednesday invoked a wartime tool, the Defense Production Act, in an effort to address the nationwide shortage of baby formula. Its use of the law, which Congress passed in the early days of the Korean War, reflects the magnitude of the supply crunch that has left many parents scrambling for formula.
Supply chain disruptions tied to the coronavirus pandemic have fueled shortages of a wide range of consumer goods, but a recall on formula produced at an Abbott plant in Michigan exacerbated the shortfall. A majority of American parents and caregivers rely, at least partially, on formula to feed their babies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Some Democrats initially thought the law might not extend to food security issues, but the most medically vulnerable babies have been the hardest hit by the shortfall. Some older children also rely on baby formula because of extreme and deadly food allergies.
- What is the Defense Production Act of 1950?
Enacted in 1950, the Defense Production Act initially aimed to help build up arms supplies following North Korea's invasion of South Korea. It has since been utilized multiple times, often during the Cold War but also recently by the Trump and Biden administrations during the coronavirus pandemic.
The measure allows the federal government to push businesses and manufacturers to prioritize the delivery and production of goods and services that the president deems key to national security.
- How is the Biden administration proposing to address the baby formula shortage?
The Biden administration will use the law to require suppliers of key ingredients to prioritize delivery to baby formula producers over other customers, the White House said.
The Food and Drug Administration has also reached an agreement with Abbott to reopen the Michigan facility, which was shut down after a bacterial contamination scare. Abbott recalled baby formula produced at the plant after four infants fell ill with bacterial infections. Two later died. The company said its own investigation concluded that the infant formula made at its plant is unlikely to be the source of the infections. (Reopening the facility, however, could take months.)
- What is Operation Fly Formula?
Separately, the United States is launching "Operation Fly Formula," a bid to increase imports of baby formula from abroad. The Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services will use commercial aircraft that have contracts with the Pentagon to pick up baby formula. Bypassing normal airfreight routes would make it easier for U.S. caregivers to obtain the product, the White House said.
- How has the Defense Production Act been used previously?
In 1950, the act helped the Truman administration stock up on wartime materials such as aluminum and copper, doubling production at that time, according to a 1982 Congressional Research Service report.
Under President Donald Trump, who initially saw the law as unfriendly to business, the act was invoked 18 times for matters related to coronavirus vaccine production. President Joe Biden used the law to help pharmaceutical giant Pfizer access equipment to scale up production of the coronavirus vaccine it developed with German partner BioNTech.
Biden came into office pledging to aggressively use the act. After Russia's Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and amid ongoing energy concerns, his administration said that it would use the law to encourage domestic production of lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite and manganese. These minerals are needed to produce batteries that store renewable energy and power electric vehicles.
Last year, the Biden administration also invoked the act to address a shortage of fire hoses, as the nation's firefighters struggled to tame tens of thousands of wildfires.
- How have lawmakers reacted to the act's use to address the formula shortage?
The move was hailed by Democratic lawmakers including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, N.Y., who praised the administration for "following my suggestion."
Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio, Fla., who in a letter last week requested that the president use the act, welcomed the move but noted that "it took 6 days."
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The Washington Post's Bryan Pietsch, Grace Moon, Taylor Telford and Amber Phillips contributed to this report.
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