US president Joe Biden has invoked Korean war-era powers to boost production of baby formula, in an effort to ease shortages that are becoming a political liability for the White House and congressional Democrats.

Biden’s move comes after growing criticism from Republicans in Congress, who have seized on the limited availability of baby formula as the latest example of an economy struggling to cope with high inflation and supply chain shortages.

Biden on Wednesday night announced two steps to increase baby formula supply: “Invoking the Defense Production Act to increase domestic production [and] launching Operation Fly Formula to use federal planes to fly formula in from abroad.”

“We’re making sure safe formula gets to all who need it,” he added in a tweet.

Under the DPA, which was first used during the Korean war and was invoked during the pandemic to boost production of medical equipment, Biden will require suppliers to “direct needed resources to infant formula manufacturers before any other customer who may have ordered that goods”, the White House said in a statement.

“Directing firms to prioritise and allocate the production of key infant formula inputs will help increase production and speed up supply chains,” it said.

In addition, the White House said US health and agriculture agencies would be able to use defence department aircraft to fly in imported baby formula from overseas.

The baby formula shortage is the latest casualty of broader turmoil in global supply chains and labour markets in the wake of the pandemic. Supplies of the product had been stretched for months, but the situation became an emergency when producer Abbott recalled three of its products when four babies became sick after consuming them and two of them died.

Abbott then closed its manufacturing facility at Sturgis, Michigan while inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration conducted an investigation. The company and regulators are in discussions to reopen the plant.

The shortage has also exposed the high level of market concentration in the sector in the US, leading to insufficient supplies from other producers to fill the gap.

Republicans say officials have allowed the problem to deteriorate for weeks unchecked.

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