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A shortage of baby formula is making it hard for parents to feed their infants

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Many American parents are living a nightmare right now. A nationwide shortage of baby formula means they literally cannot feed their infants. How could this happen? Part of it has to do with the fact that nearly the entire U.S. infant formula market is controlled by a handful of companies. And one of them, Abbott Nutrition, the maker of Similac, had to stop production a few months ago under an order of the Food and Drug Administration. It's doing a massive product recall because of a bacterial contamination at the Michigan plant.

To help us understand everything happening right now, we have called on FDA commissioner Dr. Robert Califf. Commissioner, welcome to the program.

ROBERT CALIFF: Good to be here. Glad I could be here with you.

MARTIN: You know this. Right now, there are parents listening to this conversation, and they want to know how, in the year 2022, in the United States, there is not enough baby formula for them to feed their children. What can you tell them?

CALIFF: Well, first of all, I want to reassure all Americans that we at FDA are very concerned about this and doing everything we can and working 24-by-7 to get things righted. It is a complicated situation that we can break into parts that I'm glad to discuss with you so that people can understand it. But I'll also point out that we are committed that the parents should be able to get formula for their infants. We know how desperate parents can be for this fundamental need, but we are committed to make sure that everyone does have formula now and ongoing.

MARTIN: So how is that going to happen? I mean, the FDA ordered the shutdown of this Abbott plant over three months ago. Why isn't it back online yet?

CALIFF: Well, you know, when you - it's a very delicate thing to shut down a plant for the reason that we're now seeing. If it's a major manufacturer, then that can produce supply chain problems and shortages in particular areas. And then when there is a problem in a plant to the extent that we saw, multiple measures need to be taken to make sure that the formula that's being made is safe and also has all the constituents. We're working closely with Abbott on this and would expect to have a path forward announced really within the next very short period of time.

MARTIN: What does that mean - short period of time? I mean, when you're talking about - you know, some families are just, day by day, driving many hours to try to find formula for their children.

CALIFF: I really mean within a day or days, just making sure we got everything right so that when the plant does reopen, that the product that's being made is safe for families. But I also want to emphasize that there is enough formula to go around right now. It's just that we don't have the right formula in the right place in circumstances that the news has been reporting on, appropriately so. A tremendous amount of work is going in to make sure the distribution systems are moving the product to the place where it's needed.

MARTIN: Are we living through the consequences of the reality that just four companies in this country control nearly 90% of the infant formula supply in the U.S.? I mean, how could something as critical as baby formula be made so vulnerable this way?

CALIFF: Well, you know, I learned a lot about this. Right before becoming commissioner, I was on a supply chain committee at the National Academy of Medicine. And I say, this is the case in many industries. And when an industry is less diversified, then you have less resilience in the system. That is, as long as everything's normal, it works great. Then when something goes wrong, it's very difficult to compensate for it. This will be the subject of a lot of attention by Congress, as you might imagine. We have our budget hearings this week. We're very interested in getting this right, going forward.

MARTIN: Can you quantify the shortage for me?

CALIFF: Well, there's a number called the percent of stock on the shelves. Right now, that's about 80%, which is down about 10% from what it was before the recall. So while this is a real problem, particularly in certain areas, the overall amount of stock is not as low as it might appear. Nevertheless, we're going to work night and day until we get it back up to normal levels.

MARTIN: Though I do need to follow - is it true that about half of the total infant formula purchased in America is done so by low-income benefit recipients of the WIC program for women, infants and children?

CALIFF: That's correct. This is really an essential product for low-income families and their children. And so we are going to work night and day to get this right.

MARTIN: Dr. Califf, thank you.

CALIFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.