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US risks another baby formula shortage: Ex-FDA leader

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(NewsNation) — The U.S. remains in a vulnerable position and is one disaster from ending up where it was last February when the closing of an infant formula plant sparked a nationwide shortage, according to the Food and Drug Administration’s former top food safety official.

“The nation remains one outbreak, one tornado, flood or cyber-attack away from finding itself in a similar place to that of February 17, 2002,” said Frank Yiannas, the former FDA deputy commissioner for food and policy response.

Yiannis testified Tuesday before a subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee, which is examining what went wrong during the infant formula crisis. He said the FDA failed to conduct adequate inspections and ignored a whistle-blower report warning of a serious bacteria outbreak at Abbott Nutrition’s powdered infant formula production plant in Sturgis, Michigan.

Abbott, the largest infant formula manufacturer in the US, issued a recall of its formula and shut down its Michigan plant for months to clean up the bacteria. This set off a chain reaction drastically reducing the U.S. formula supply and left store shelves empty and parents desperately scrambling to find formula.

President Joe Biden launched the Operation Fly Formula Mission to import large shipments of formula from Europe and Canada.

Yiannis said the lack of action by the FDA early on caused the largest recall of infant powdered formula in U.S. history.

Committee members agreed there is shared responsibility and blame for the shortage between Abbott Nutrition and the FDA.

Yiannis made several recommendations to the committee:

“Historically the FDA has been focused on food safety and nutrition, not supply chain availability, but after the pandemic which I described as the biggest test on the U.S. food system in 100 years, we all realized that as an agency we needed more intelligence and data on how companies and supply chains work,” he said.

“We need to know how equipped the FDA is to be in the prevention business now that we’ve weathered the 2022 crisis,” said Rep. Katie Porter (D-California).

Meanwhile, formula production has rebounded, but the impact of the shortage is still being felt in small and rural areas, where store shelves aren’t fully stocked and parents are still struggling to find formula at times.

The infant formula supply chain has been under scrutiny since the crisis. Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, the FDA announced that a new strategy is underway to strengthen the management of the nation’s supply of infant formula.

The FDA said it wants to inspect all infant formula manufacturers at least once a year and increase training for inspectors and improve communication with formula manufacturers.

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