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FDA head says baby formula shortage should ease 'within days'

The head of the Food and Drug Administration said Thursday that concerned parents who have been struggling to find infant formula for their children “should begin to see improvement” on store shelves “within days.”

Testifying before a House appropriations subcommittee, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said consumers should get some relief soon thanks to increased output from manufacturers and a boost in imports that’s being aided by military planes.

“We’re pulling a bunch of levers at the same time,” Califf told Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La., when asked for a timetable on when parents and caregivers could see more formula in stores.

While formula production had already been slowed by supply chain issues due to the pandemic, the problem became worse in February after Abbott Nutrition shut down a key plant in Sturgis, Michigan, over a suspected link to the deaths of two infants from bacterial infections.

Califf said the FDA is still investigating, but the agency’s inspection of the facility on Jan. 31 observed “significant operational deficiencies” and found a bacterium that can potentially trigger severe foodborne illness in babies.

Abbott, however, has said that it conducted a review and found “no evidence” linking their baby formulas to the illnesses.

The FDA is working with Abbott to get the plant reopened, which Califf said is “going well.”

“Abbott has remediated a number of the issues, and we’re going to make sure it gets done as quick as possible,” he said, adding the plant will need to be up and running before the situation is completely alleviated.

“Within days it will get better, but it will be a few weeks until we’re back to normal,” he said.

Califf said there have already been signs of improvement.

“In the last week we’ve had more infant formula bought — between 11 and 19 percent — than what was bought in the month before the closure of the plant,” he said.

Lawmakers expressed frustration with Califf when he declined to answer questions about why it took so long for the FDA to inspect the Sturgis plant, given that a detailed whistleblower complaint about conditions at the facility had been sent to the agency in October.

Califf has ordered a probe into why it took so long to dispatch inspectors to the plant, and said he couldn’t comment further “since it is ongoing.”

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