Baby formula fallout lingers ahead of White House conference

With help from Marcia Brown and Steven Overly

— President Joe Biden is set to speak at the White House’s upcoming conference for hunger, nutrition and health on Wednesday. The White House will put out a national strategy to tackle food access and health issues for the years to come.

— Some advocates want to raise the ongoing fallout from the baby formula crisis and serious breakdowns within the federal food safety response at the conference, especially after a recent FDA review didn’t provide any new accountability around the crisis.

— The Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday will hold a business meeting to consider the nominations of three Ag nominees. They’re expected to sail through the committee vote.

HAPPY MONDAY, SEPT. 26. Welcome to Morning Ag. We’re your hosts, Garrett Downs and Meredith Lee Hill. Are you going to the White House nutrition conference on Wednesday? Drop us a line and let’s chat. Send your tips along to [email protected] and [email protected], and follow us at @Morning_Ag.

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WHITE HOUSE CONFERENCE: The Biden administration unveiled its long-anticipated agenda on Friday for the White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health set for Sept. 28 in Washington, D.C.

In addition to Biden speaking in the afternoon, second gentleman Douglas Emhoff, White House Domestic Policy Adviser Susan Rice, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and chef José Andrés, a humanitarian who is a member of the president’s council on sports, fitness and nutrition, will speak at the meeting, according to the White House.

The administration’s planned roadmap includes a series of administrative actions from Biden, calls for Congress to pass legislation and recommendations for the private sector and philanthropic groups to help tackle long-term goals, including ending hunger by 2030 in the U.S., according to six people familiar with the plans.

A series of corporations and nonprofit groups are planning to unveil their own initiatives and financial commitments in conjunction with the conference.

FDA role: According to the people familiar with the plans, the national strategy the White House plans to unveil does include administrative directives for and policy rollouts from the Food and Drug Administration — the agency at the forefront of ensuring Americans’ food is safe and which is also at the center of the federal government’s hobbled infant formula response.

A string of FDA failures, despite direct warnings about the Abbott Nutrition formula plant at the center of the crisis, helped to prompt two separate reviews of the agency’s troubled foods division.

HOPES FOR A FORMULA DISCUSSION: “I understand that they want this to be a record-setting push into the future,” said Sarah Chamberlin, a mom and advocate for children and adults with a rare metabolic condition known as phenylketonuria, or PKU, who often rely on specialty formulas for their sole nutrition.

“But, we can’t do that when we are still dealing with the present, which is pretty mired in crisis,” Chamberlin added, noting she hopes Biden officials discuss issues around medical nutrition and the federal government’s infant formula response breakdowns at the meeting.

The administration has undertaken a flurry of federal actions to address the formula situation since this spring, including continuing to fly in formula from abroad.

Biden officials have said the conference and problems regarding the infant formula supply chain in the U.S. are two distinctly different topics. The conference, they note, is meant to spark discussions and lay out a strategy to tackle hunger and reduce diet-related diseases by 2030, along with other long-term goals.

A White House official did tell MA the issue of specialty formula will be mentioned as a “part of the broader conversation at the conference,” but the focus of the meeting will not be on supply chain issues, including those related to infant formula. The infant formula supply chain issues have had their own response, the official added.

An FDA spokesperson said the agency is continuing to work on the formula situation with federal partners.

“While we still have considerable work to do, we are making progress. We recognize the impact the formula shortages have had on parents, caregivers and the children and individuals who rely on these products. Rest assured that we are committed to implementing the necessary changes to help us avoid future supply shortages and ensure parents and caregivers have access to safe and nutritious infant formula whenever and wherever they need it,” the spokesperson added.

FDA Commissioner Robert Califf is not set to attend the White House conference this Wednesday, according to people familiar with the plans. Susan Mayne, the head of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (who FDA says was involved in the infant formula response after months of delays), is expected to attend and speak during the conference. Mayne is not among the headline speakers the White House announced Friday.

Still few answers: In an interview with POLITICO shortly after FDA released its long anticipated internal review of the infant formula crisis, FDA chief Califf said the report was meant to be forward looking and accountability “is not something that I think is really germane to this kind of a report.” Califf added that accountability issues are something that would generally be “handled through the personnel process.”

“You keep referring to these things as failures,” Califf said at one point during the interview. “I regard them as areas for improvement.”

Califf noted a separate, external review of the larger FDA foods program is ongoing and that the FDA has published a timeline of the months-long federal response. That includes receiving a 34-page whistleblower report last fall. The agency didn’t interview the whistleblower until December, and didn’t reinspect the plant until late January.

“We’re very, very well aware of those. We’re not going to spend a lot of time going back. We’re going to spend our time taking into account what happened then and moving forward,” Califf said.

NOMINEES MARKUP: The Senate Ag Committee on Tuesday will vote on advancing a trio of agency nominees at a business meeting.

Who’s up? Jose Emilio Esteban is nominated to be undersecretary of agriculture for food safety, Vincent Garfield Logan was tapped to be on the board of the Farm Credit Administration and Alexis Taylor is nominated to be undersecretary of agriculture for trade and foreign agriculture affairs.

Full-speed ahead: The vote comes hot on the heels of a hearing for the nominees last week, where lawmakers including Ag Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) mulled approving some or all of them by unanimous consent. All of the nominees are expected to pass with bipartisan support should they get floor time in the Senate’s jam-packed schedule.

Ag groups have urged speedy approval for all of the sector’s nominees, including Doug McKalip, the nominee for chief agricultural negotiator at the office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

But, but, but: It appears McKalip has hit a snag after being advanced by the Senate Finance Committee earlier this month. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the only senator not to vote for McKalip to advance from committee, is holding up the nomination over transparency concerns at USTR.

His office told our Morning Trade colleagues that he’s opposing the nomination “as a way to send the clearest signal that he firmly believes Americans deserve honest and transparent trade policy that prioritizes the economic interests of the country and cracks down on waste, fraud, and abuse.”

— House lawmakers today will introduce legislation to temporarily lift tariffs on base powder, a critical ingredient in infant formula, POLITICO’s Steven Overly reports. The formula industry lobbied heavily to include base powder in the initial action to lift tariffs on completed formula, which passed into law earlier this year.

The International Fresh Produce Association released its economic impact report last week, which you can read here. IFPA’s CEO Cathy Burns will attend the White House hunger conference, and she told MA she’s hoping it will highlight the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables in a healthy diet.

FIRST IN MA: One Country Project, a Democratic action group aiming to garner support in rural areas, released its 2022 Rural Playbook for this year’s midterms. It found that Republicans are outpacing Democrats in the rural turnout race.

The American Sustainable Business Network released its regenerative agriculture and justice priorities for the 2023 farm bill. You can read that here.