U.S. lawmakers to examine infant formula shortage

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. lawmakers plan to hold a hearing this month on shortages of infant formula, the House Energy and Commerce Committee said on Wednesday, calling the situation "increasingly alarming."

The hearing was announced as Abbott Laboratories, the biggest supplier of milk formula in the United States, said it could restart production within two weeks of infant formula at a troubled Michigan plant that has been tied to the shortages.

The House of Representatives panel, which is scheduled to meet May 25, did not name any company executives or other witnesses, but said it would release more details before the meeting.

The hearing will focus on the shortage's causes, efforts to increase production, and what action is needed "to ensure access to safe formula across the nation," the committee chair, Representative Frank Pallone, a Democrat, said in a statement.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre on Wednesday also said it was a top priority to ensure that baby formula is available amid the shortage.

Shortages developed after Abbott recalled Similac and other baby formula in February made at its Michigan plant following complaints of bacterial infections in infants who consumed the products.

Abbott on Wednesday said the restart of the Michigan plant would be subject to approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and that it will take six to eight weeks for the product to return to store shelves once production is resumed. It said that after a thorough review, there was no evidence linking its formula to infant illness.

Also on Wednesday, New York Attorney General Letitia James urged consumers to be alert to price gouging on baby formula, saying that her office would investigate excessively high prices. There is no federal law that explicitly bans price gouging but it is illegal under some state statutes.

In Washington, Pallone said lawmakers stood ready to work with President Joe Biden's administration to resolve the shortage, although it is unclear what specific steps Congress or the White House can take to boost supplies in the short run.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said it is working with manufacturers to alleviate supply issues and that several companies are at or over capacity.

A number of U.S. retailers -- including Target Corp, CVS Health Corp and Walgreens Boots Alliance -- have limited in-store and online formula purchases.

Supply chain snags and historic inflation have compounded the shortage, analysts have said, leaving about 40% of baby formula products out of stock nationwide.

Other infant formula makers in the U.S. market include British consumer goods firm Reckitt Benckiser and Nestle SA and Perrigo Company PLC.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Diane Bartz; additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; editing by Leslie Adler)