President Joe Biden acknowledged Wednesday that he wasn't personally aware of the nation's baby formula shortage until early April — nearly two full months after Abbott Nutrition's manufacturing plant in Michigan shut down after a bacteria scare and temporary recall of products.
"I became aware of this problem sometime in early April, about how intense it was. We did everything in our power from that point on," Biden said during a White House roundtable with formula manufacturers. "I don't think anyone anticipated the impact of the shutdown of one facility."
During the same meeting, however, a few roundtable speakers said they understood how the shutdown could have an immediate impact on formula availability.
"We were aware of the general impact that this would have," said Robert Cleveland, a senior vice president at Reckitt, when responding to a direct Biden question about whether the company was surprised the Abbott closure had "this profound effect immediately."
"We knew, from the very beginning, this would be a very serious event," Cleveland said.
Upon hearing about Abbott's shutdown, Cleveland immediately reached out to Reckitt's retail partners, such as Target and Walmart.
His primary goal then: helping the retailers order all the available inventory on hand and push stock from distribution centers to store shelves.
"The very first thing we did when we heard about the Abbott recall was, we could foresee this would create a tremendous shortage. We significantly increased all our material orders," said Murray Kessler, CEO of Perrigo, which produces store-brand formula for infants.
Biden sarcastically said last month that White House staff might have known about the baby formula shortage earlier, if they were "mind readers."
Those words, however, contradict what Biden administration officials recently posited, saying the White House had "been working around the clock since February" on the baby formula shortage.
Later on Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre clarified, saying various federal agencies had been responding to the Abbott recall "since Day 1" back in February.
Of course, that doesn't explain why Biden, the nation's commander-in-chief, wasn't made aware of the formula crisis until two months later.
"The president is frustrated himself about the situation, about the issue that we have, and he is frustrated on behalf of the American families," Jean-Pierre said. "He is doing everything that he can to make sure that we take action."
It's worth noting: Abbott wasn't represented at Wednesday's event.
"We understand Abbott is working hard to get back to safely made infant formula. That process is ongoing and should remain between them," said Jean-Pierre.
In mid-February, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Abbott Nutrition's voluntary shutdown of the Michigan plant, after an inspection allegedly detailed unsanitary conditions and multiple strains of a bacteria that can be deadly to infants.
Consequently, Abbott issued a nationwide recall for all brands of powdered formula that had been manufactured at the facility.
Two infants apparently died from being exposed to bacteria. However, the FDA has been unable to conclusively link the bacteria found in Abbott's plant to the strains found in the sick babies.
According to reports, Abbott and three other manufacturers are responsible for an estimated 90% of the U.S. formula market.
The FDA and Abbott are apparently operating under a legal agreement to reopen Abbott's facility in the near future, once the agency's updated safety standards have been met.
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