Pete Buttigieg blames Abbott for baby formula shortage

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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is among the parents scouring stores, refreshing websites and enlisting relatives’ help to snag containers of highly sought-after baby formula during the nationwide shortage.

“This is very personal for us,” Buttigieg said Sunday during an interview with “Face the Nation” on CBS. “We’ve got two 9-month-old children; baby formula is a very big part of our lives.”

Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, like millions of parents, have been left scrambling to find the product that is vital to healthy development for many babies. Supply chain crunches tied to the coronavirus pandemic had already strained the country’s formula stock — an issue that was further exacerbated by a major product recall in February.

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The double whammy has left parents struggling to find food for their infants and has lawmakers from both parties demanding answers.

For Buttigieg, the blame lies squarely on Abbott, one of four major baby formula manufacturers in the United States. In February, the company issued a recall for products made at a Michigan plant after four infants fell ill with bacterial infections and two died.

“Fundamentally, we are here because a company was not able to guarantee that its plant was safe. And that plant has shut down,” Buttigieg said. (Abbott has said in a statement that “there is no evidence to link our formulas to these infant illnesses.”)

Baby formula is highly regulated and difficult to produce. In the United States, four manufacturers — Mead Johnson, Abbott, Gerber and Perrigo — control about 90 percent of the country’s supply. Now, one of those companies “messed up,” Buttigieg said, and “is unable to confirm that a plant — a major plant — is safe and free of contamination.”

That plant in Sturgis, Mich., was ordered to close in February by the Food and Drug Administration. Buttigieg said reopening it is “the most important thing” in addressing the formula shortage.

“That’s the work that’s going on between the company and the FDA,” he said. “It’s got to be safe, and it’s got to be up and running as soon as possible.”

The Biden administration said it is working with manufacturers to boost formula imports and expand the list of products parents can buy under WIC, a federal assistance program for women, infants and children. A bill granting the food assistance program emergency authority to address supply disruptions will be brought up in the House this week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Friday.

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Buttigieg defended the administration’s response to the formula shortage, which he said has President Biden’s attention. But ultimately, a plant closing for contamination problems “is the responsibility of the company.”

“The responsibility of the [government] regulator is to ensure, as they take steps to get it ready, that it will in fact be safe when it comes back online,” he said.

Still, a timeline for the end of the formula shortage seems nowhere in sight.

For now, Buttigieg said his family is “all set” with formula for the twins he and his husband adopted last year. But that’s something he acknowledged might not be a reality for a number of families across a country where 43 percent of its baby formula is out of stock.

“But I think about what that would be like if you’re a shift worker with two jobs, maybe you don’t have a car, you literally don’t have the time or the money to be going from store to store,” Buttigieg said. “That’s why this is such a serious issue.”

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