Grocery store shelves were bare of baby formula around Denver and other cities in the United States Friday as the federal government continued unprecedented steps toward accelerating production and distribution of the vital supplement.
U.S. President Joe Biden defended his response to the crisis Friday as Republicans and conservative media attacked his administration's actions.
"If we'd been better mind readers I guess we could have (reacted faster)," he told CNN at a press conference.
Across the country, mothers took to social media and drove up to 50 miles to look around amid baby food formula shortage, People, an American weekly magazine that specializes in celebrity news and human-interest stories, said Friday, calling the situation "very, very scary."
One mother also told the Denver Channel that "my entire family just goes and finds the formula when we they can."
"My sister picked me up some in Arvada yesterday, my dad up in Thornton the other day," Ashlee Lane, the mother of a 7-month-old, said of her family's efforts scouring the Denver area for baby formula.
Data released this week by Datasembly, which tracks baby formula stock at more than 11,000 stores, showed that 43 percent of the top-selling baby formula products were out of stock as of the week ending May 8, and in five states, more than half of the top-selling formula products were missing from stores.
At busy retail giant Target in Boulder, 50 km northwest of Denver, baby formula supplies were scarce and most store shelves were empty on Friday.
"Usually they tell us when more is coming in," a store inventory clerk told Xinhua, pointing to her hand-held computer. "But this says zero are coming in and zero are expected soon."
Nearby, at high-end grocer Whole Foods, the story was the same, even with non-traditional formula products that catered to mothers with money seeking organic baby food solutions.
"We really noticed it in the past week," customer service representative Julian Bell said, "although our stock has been dwindling for several weeks."
On Friday, the Department of Health and Human Service's (HHS) website posted that "manufacturers have ramped up production 30-50 percent," and that "yesterday, President Biden spoke with retailers and manufacturers, including Walmart, Target, Reckitt, and Gerber, to discuss ways to get more formula quickly and safely onto store shelves."
HHS pointed to the January recall of "certain powdered infant formulas" by industry leader Abbott Nutrition as a catalyst for the shortages, a federal response to four Michigan babies getting sick from the formula and two infant deaths between September and February.
"The reason we're here is because the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) took the steps to ensure that babies were taking safe formula," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a press conference Thursday.
"There were babies who died from taking this formula, so they were doing their jobs," Psaki said.
Psaki announced a series of measures to alleviate the shortage, including efforts to speed up production and crack down on price gouging, as reports surfaced of individuals buying out store supplies and re-selling them on Ebay for huge profits.
The Justice Department is now working with state attorney generals to monitor price-gouging in the formula market, and Biden said Thursday he had asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate reports of price-gouging.
The Biden administration is also working to increase imports of formula, a new solution as the United States produces 98 percent of its formula supply, according to an administration fact sheet.
On Friday, Biden also called for cutting red tape on the types of formula parents can buy, calling on the FTC and state attorneys general to crack down on price gouging and unfair market practices, and increase the supply of formula through increased imports.
Congressional Democrats joined the president in demanding answers from baby formula manufacturers.
In letters to the heads of four baby formula companies, Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney of New York and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois demanded documents and details about the shortage.
"The national formula shortage poses a threat to the health and economic security of infants and families in communities throughout the country -- particularly those with less income who have historically experienced health inequities, including food insecurity," they wrote in letters sent to Mead Johnson Nutrition, Nestle USA, Perrigo Company and Abbott Nutrition.
These companies control nearly 90 percent of the U.S. market for baby formula, the lawmakers said, requesting certain documents submitted by June 2.
REPUBLICANS EXPLOIT THE CRISIS
Republican leaders were quick to exploit the baby food crisis for their own political gain, slamming Biden on several fronts.
"This is absolutely UNACCEPTABLE in America," Elise Stefanik, a New York House Republican, wrote on Twitter. "Sadly, this has become the norm because of Joe Biden's radical agenda."
"Unsurprisingly, when I reached out in February from my office to the FDA we received no substantive response. Joe Biden simply has no plan," Stefanik told the media at a press conference Thursday.
"Instead, bare shelves. Biden has continued to pass the buck. This is not a Third World country. This should never happen in the United States of America. We're unified in demanding action to address this crisis," she added.
Rep. Ann Wagner, a Missouri Republican, joined in: "This is sadly Joe Biden's America."
"Working families are already struggling to put food on the table due to the skyrocketing costs of every day items, and now they are facing a crisis that is threatening the very lives of their newborn children," Wagner said.