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U.S. Will Airlift Baby Formula From Abroad as Shortages Grow Worse

WASHINGTON — The nationwide shortage of baby formula is getting worse, with an increasing number of retailers and online sellers posting out-of-stock notices even as President Biden met on Wednesday with executives of five baby food companies, and announced new shipments of formula from Europe to help restock American shelves.

Baby formula has been in short supply across the United States for weeks, the result of the shutdown in February of the leading infant formula manufacturing plant, operated by Abbott Laboratories, because of contamination concerns. Last month, the president invoked the Defense Production Act to help other manufacturers, and promised to use the military to speed up imports of formula from around the world.

But despite those efforts, shortages have only gotten worse. And on Wednesday, Mr. Biden said he had not been aware of the shortage of formula until April, raising new questions about why the White House waited almost two months before taking aggressive actions to address it.

Mr. Biden’s comments were in stark contrast to those from company executives, who told the president that they knew a crisis was in the making from the moment the Abbott plant closed.

“They did, but I didn’t,” the president told reporters.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, denied on Wednesday that the president waited too long to take to take aggressive action, noting that the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies had been in contact with manufacturers since shortly after the February closure.

“We have been working on this issue from day one, since the recall,” she said. But under intense questioning, she said she could not explain Mr. Biden’s comment that he had been unaware of the situation until April.

Executives for the five companies said they had reacted immediately to the closure of the Abbott plant, recognizing the need — and the opportunity — to increase their production. All of the companies said their plants were operating well above capacity, with most saying production lines were running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We’ve optimized our portfolio to focus on those products that move through our plants the fastest,” Robert Cleveland, a senior vice president for Reckitt, the second-largest manufacturer of baby formula in the United States, told Mr. Biden.

Mr. Cleveland added: “From the moment that recall was announced, we reached out immediately to retail partners like Target and Walmart to tell them this is what we think will happen.”

Mr. Biden’s virtual meeting on Wednesday with top officials from the five companies was designed to underscore his administration’s efforts to address the situation.

“Look, as a father and a grandfather, and I’m sure you’re all feeling this way, we understand how difficult the shortage has been for families all across the country,” Mr. Biden said. “There’s nothing more stressful than the feeling you can’t get what your child needs.”

But data from companies that track the supply of consumer goods suggest that the president’s efforts have not significantly changed the situation for parents.

Seventy percent of formula products nationwide were listed as out-of-stock for the week ending May 21, according to the retail software company Datasembly. That is an increase from 45 percent for the week that ended May 8, and 31 percent earlier, in April.

According to Datasembly, almost 75 percent of the baby formula supply is out of stock in Atlanta; 80 percent in Des Moines; and 90 percent in Houston. Consumers are having better luck in Indianapolis, where only 48 percent of formula is listed as out of stock, and Chicago, where the figure is only 57 percent.

A spokeswoman for Datasembly said that its analysis shows that “out-of-stock percentage for baby formula continues to worsen.”

Amazon’s website offers very little baby formula currently available for purchase, while the price of formula being offered by private sellers on sites like eBay has skyrocketed.

Tinglong Dai, a professor of Operations Management and Business Analytics at Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School, estimated that the new shipments would meet the need for infant formula in the United States for about six weeks. The problem is that consumers have changed their purchasing behavior, buying up as much formula as they can find.

“If I’m a parent who needs to buy baby formula, I would buy any formula that I could find. That means there will probably be much less than six weeks of shortfall made available here,” Professor Dai said.

The White House said in a statement that enough Kendamil formula to make about four million bottles would be flown from the United Kingdom to locations across the United States during the next three weeks. The statement said that United Airlines had agreed to transport the formula from Heathrow Airport in London free of charge, for purchase at Target stores across the country.

Target, which has been placing limits on the amount of infant formula consumers can buy on its website or in stores, said it will “work urgently to receive and distribute Kendamil formula,” a spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

The White House also announced that the Department of Health and Human Services had arranged to transport 380,000 pounds of Bubs Australia infant formula, or about 4.6 million 8-ounce bottles, from Melbourne, Australia to Pennsylvania and California on June 9 and June 11. Officials said more deliveries of Bubs formula would be announced in the coming days.

For Mr. Biden, the baby formula shortage only adds to the political headaches caused by supply chain issues that have dogged his presidency for months.

The pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine have led to shortages of everything from semiconductor chips to oil, pushing prices higher for gasoline, groceries, airline tickets and more.

Since last month, officials said the administration has flown the equivalent of 1.5 million eight-ounce bottles of formula into the United States.

Wednesday’s announcement of new efforts to import formula is set to more than double that amount, officials said.

The Kendamil move comes just days after the F.D.A. relaxed import regulations to allow Kendal Nutricare, the manufacturer of the formula, to import formula into the United States under the Kendamil brand.

Mr. Biden met virtually with officials from ByHeart, Bubs Australia, Reckitt, Perrigo Company and Gerber. Officials from Abbott, the operator of the plant that was shut down by the F.D.A., did not attend the meeting. A White House official did not respond to questions about whether an Abbott representative had been invited.

A spokesman for Perrigo, which controls about 8 percent of the market and makes the private-label brands sold at various retailers, said the company has been running its manufacturing facilities 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For the first three months of the year, it shipped 37 percent more infant formula than it had a year ago.

Likewise Mead Johnson, which is owned by Reckitt Benckiser, said it has also exhausted its capacity, and shipped 30 percent more formula in the first quarter than it had a year earlier.

DataWeave, another retail and pricing analytics firm, reported that many states in the Midwest continued to experience severe shortages of baby formula. Availability in Wisconsin and Indiana, the company said, was at only about 20 percent for the two-week period ending May 30. At the same time, the firm reported that baby formula was widely available in some other states, including New York and Washington.

Christina Jewett contributed reporting.

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