The Biden administration is still seeking a full picture of ongoing problems with infant formula supply — more than four months after a key plant shutdown sparked shortages and a national crisis.
The FDA awarded a $70,000 contract to the data firm NielsenIQ on June 14 for four months of retail tracking data, according to two people familiar with the discussions and a posted notice of the agreement. The move comes after White House officials privately admitted to POLITICO that incomplete data on retail stocks slowed their response after the shutdown and recall of formula from a key Abbott Nutrition manufacturing plant in mid-February. As a result, the administration didn’t anticipate the severity of the shortages, which spiraled into a political liability for President Joe Biden in May.
Despite launching an emergency government response over the last month — including flying in formula from abroad and easing regulatory restrictions — the supply situation is getting worse. Data the White House tracks shows current in-stock rates dipping below those in early May. And the shortages are likely to drag on for months more after the Abbott plant at the center of the crisis was knocked offline again by storms and flooding last week.
“Sounds like they haven’t a clue as to what’s going on,” said Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that oversees the FDA. “Go to Costco, go to Wal-Mart. Look at the shelves,” Burr added, referencing continued shortages at some of the country’s largest retailers.
The FDA’s Office of Food Policy and Response, one of the teams responding to the formula shortages, stipulates in the online notice of the contract that Nielsen’s retail tracking data will help FDA “monitor and analyze the status of infant formula supply chain impacts and respond to White House requests on the outbreak.”
An FDA spokesperson confirmed the exclusive Nielsen contract to POLITICO.
The FDA started receiving the data this week, according to the same two people familiar with the discussions and contract.
Up until now, administration officials have been piecing together data about infant formula retail stocks from the federal government, formula companies, retailers and private market research firms as they’ve struggled to respond to the situation.
The FDA currently doesn't have the power to compel data from private companies about their supplies. But the agency is asking Congress for such authority, arguing it will help officials better respond to future situations like the Abbott plant shutdown and formula recall.
FDA will “continue to utilize other sources of aggregated sales data, such as IRI and Datasembly, in its analysis and monitoring of trends in the infant formula supply,” said the spokesperson, referencing the two private data research companies the White House has relied on. IRI frequently shows higher in-stock rates than other data sources.
The White House has continued to tout the IRI data, saying it took action to authorize import restriction rollbacks and infant formula flights from abroad after the company’s tracking found national in-stock rates ticked down to 80 percent during the month of April. But national stock rates don’t reflect variations in formula availability by region. The upper Midwest is experiencing the most severe current shortages, which have hit low-income and families of color especially hard.
FDA Commissioner Robert Califf told lawmakers last week he still believes the U.S. will soon have a “surplus” of infant formula production, despite ongoing challenges and the Abbott plant’s second shutdown.
Califf said the administration is now receiving production data from all the formula companies, which is helpful but still leaves White House and FDA officials guessing as to the full picture of how much formula is making it onto store shelves across the country.