(NewsNation) — How did we get here and when will it get better? Those are among the questions that remain as FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf on Thursday became the first Biden administration official to testify before Congress on the national shortage of baby formula.
Califf faced a bipartisan grilling from House lawmakers over an issue that has angered American parents.
“It’s not optional for families, this is essential,” said Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill.
“So I can tell my constituents that within a matter of days, they will be able to find formula on the shelves?” asked Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La.
Califf replied, “It will gradually get better.”
The nationwide shortage is partly due to the closing of Abbott Nutrition’s production plant in Michigan, the largest in the U.S., which has been closed since February over contamination problems.
Califf told lawmakers Thursday that the shuttered factory could be back up and running as soon as next week, though he sidestepped questions about whether his agency should have intervened earlier.
“I’m pleased to say today we’ve already made significant progress and I think we are on track to get it open within the next week to two weeks, most likely at the outer bound two weeks,” Califf said.
Lawmakers grilled Califf about why it took months to inspect the plant, even though officials knew about safety conditions when they first got a complaint in October.
But Califf declined to answer in any detail, saying they had suspended inspections in December because of a COVID-19 surge but were still doing what they called mission-critical inspections.
A lawmaker then asked why baby formula wasn’t considered mission-critical.
“This is something parents are asking us about; they want to know what happened. It’s not acceptable to say you can’t comment on it,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis. “This is a problem I’ve seen over and over with the FDA: You guys aren’t good at communicating.”
For Tennessee mom Cecelia Perkins, the situation is critical. She says she’s losing sleep over how she will be able to feed her son.
Adonis, 3, lives with several serious medical conditions and requires a special formula, but his supply is running low.
“We only have days’ worth of supplies left to feed him. Since he’s tube fed, he can’t take anything by mouth and if he doesn’t get his formula, if we can’t feed him, he could starve, he could be hospitalized,” Perkins explained.
Two other children were recently hospitalized in Tennessee when they didn’t get the right formula they needed for a special medical condition. They were treated by Dr. Mark Corkins.
Corkins said he and his team are doing what they can to find alternatives for his patients who require special formula.
“It is absolutely a race against time. That’s exactly where we’re at,” Corkins said.
Meanwhile, Perkins says she’s working with doctors and a nutritionist to find alternatives to feed her son. But with only a few days left of formula, she fears her options are limited.
“If we can’t find any, we’ll have to be admitted to the hospital,” Perkins explained.
After production resumes, Abbott has said, it could take about two months before new formula begins arriving in stores.
Most agree that the help can’t come soon enough.
Chelsea Carsten is the director of a group in Atlanta called the Bunny Hive, which helps moms and caregivers track down formula for their kids.
“They have tears in their eyes,” Carsten said. “They’re just so grateful that we could be here for them to help them find the formula that they need to feed the little ones.”
The questions for the FDA commissioner came one day after the Biden administration announced it is invoking the Defense Production Act to speed up the supply chain for baby formula manufacturers.
Biden is also authorizing the Defense Department to use commercial aircraft to fly formula supplies that meet federal standards from overseas to the U.S., in what the White House is calling “Operation Fly Formula.”
Some parents across the nation developed their own strategies to combat the shortage, teaming up to send each other formula.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.