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Suppliers now must direct needed ingredients to infant formula manufacturers

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act to try to help with the nation's shortage of infant formula. That means suppliers must direct needed ingredients to infant formula manufacturers before filling any other orders. The move follows the FDA's sign-off earlier this week on certain infant formulas from overseas that are produced to U.S. standards.

For more on this, we go to NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hey, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: All right. So there are going to be some people on Capitol Hill happy about this because members of Congress have been calling on President Biden to do this, to invoke the Defense Production Act. How's it actually going to work?

KEITH: Well, in this case, it isn't that the government is telling a company that was making cereal to go change course and make formula. But as you said, the president, by invoking the Defense Production Act, can require suppliers that make ingredients that go into formula to deliver to manufacturers that make formula before any of their other customers.

And I have to say, it's not clear how much this will really help because this whole problem was set off by this big Abbott factory in Michigan having to be shut down in February due to safety concerns.

KELLY: Right.

KEITH: That one plant reportedly supplied one-fifth of the nation's infant formula. Other makers, other manufacturers are operating at near full production already. And it's not clear that supplies were their problem. But, you know, President Biden was under a lot of pressure to do more, and this could break through some of the supply congestion - supply chain congestion.

This is a move that was used a lot during the height of the pandemic to prioritize ingredients that were needed for the pandemic response. And the president argued in his proclamation here that this is a similarly urgent situation.

KELLY: So they have used this before. OK. The White House also is launching something called Operation Fly Formula, which is (laughter) - I'm going to let you explain. What is it?

KEITH: Well, it is an operation to fly formula. The idea here is that the Department of Defense can contract with commercial cargo carriers to bring in baby formula from other countries. This sort of thing was also done during the pandemic to bring in urgently needed PPE - masks and other supplies. And this should cut through at least a couple layers of red tape.

As you said before, earlier this week, the FDA gave its safety sign-off to certain infant formulas from certain countries that are produced to U.S. standards. The White House says that this will speed up the importation and distribution of that formula, but this is not going to happen overnight.

KELLY: Well, and, you know, I'm channeling all the parents of young children listening and saying it needs to happen overnight. You know, this is so stressful if you're a parent with a young kid who needs the formula. I mean, any sense the situation will improve soon?

KEITH: The single biggest thing that will improve the situation is getting that Abbott factory in Michigan back online. The FDA announced earlier this week that they have a plan to reopen it. It will take two weeks to restart production, another six to eight weeks to bring it to full capacity. So this is, as I said before, not an overnight fix.

KELLY: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.