FDA chief under fire for slow response to baby formula issue

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WASHINGTON — The head of the Food and Drug Administration faced bipartisan fury from House lawmakers Wednesday over months of delays investigating problems at the nation’s largest baby formula plant that prompted an ongoing shortage.

FDA Commissioner Robert Califf laid out a series of setbacks in congressional testimony that slowed his agency’s response, including a COVID-19 outbreak at the plant and a whistleblower complaint that didn’t reach FDA leadership because it was apparently lost in the mail.

Califf testified before a House subcommittee probing the shortage, which has snowballed into a major political controversy and forced the U.S. to begin airlifting products from Europe.

The FDA’s response was: “Too slow and there were decisions that were suboptimal along the way,” Califf told lawmakers.

The FDA and President Joe Biden face mounting pollical pressure to explain why they didn’t intervene earlier to try and head off the supply crisis.

“Why did it take an onslaught of national media attention for the Biden administration to act with a sense of urgency required to address an infant formula shortage?” asked Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Virginia, the committee’s ranking Republican. The panel is also scheduled to hear from three formula manufacturers, including Abbott Nutrition.

The shortage mostly stems from Abbott’s Michigan plant, which the FDA shut down in February due to contamination issues. Califf gave the first detailed account of why his agency took months to inspect and shutter the plant despite learning of potential problems as early as September.

“We knew that ceasing plant operations would create supply problems but we had no choice given the insanitary conditions,” Califf said in opening testimony.

FDA staff began honing in on Abbott’s plant last fall while tracking several bacterial infections in infants who had consumed formula from the facility. The four cases occurred between September and January, leading to hospitalization and two deaths.

The FDA planned to begin inspecting the Sturgis, Michigan, plant on Dec. 30, according to Califf’s testimony. But Abbott warned that about a dozen of its employees had tested positive for COVID-19 and requested a delay. As a result, the FDA didn’t begin its inspection until Jan. 31.

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