A U.S. military plane filled with more than 70,000 pounds of baby formula arrived in Indianapolis on Sunday from Germany, part of Operation Fly Formula, a Biden administration initiative that aims to quickly increase supplies of the food source amid a national shortage.
Shortly after 11 a.m., a C-17 loaded with Nestlé’s Alfamino Infant and Alfamino Junior formula – both hypoallergenic formulas that can be fed to babies intolerant of protein in cow’s milk – arrived at Indianapolis International Airport, where the plane was greeted by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“This shipment of formula serves a critical medical purpose and will help infants with specific dietary needs requiring specialized formula,” Vilsack tweeted. At the airport, he told reporters that the formula would “take care of 9,000 babies and 18,000 toddlers for a week.”
An additional 114 pallets of Gerber Good Start Extensive HA formula will be dispatched “in the coming days,” the White House said earlier this weekend. Together, the shipments are enough to fill about 1.5 million eight-ounce bottles.
The Biden administration announced Sunday that it would use the Defense Production Act to give two companies priority on ingredients or equipment necessary to manufacture formula.
Abbott Nutrition will be able to make priority orders for sugar and corn syrup. Reckitt will be able to place priority orders for filters that have been constrained during the pandemic.
“We are working around-the-clock to do what we can to rapidly increase the safe supply of infant formula – from coordinating the logistics for the incoming international flights to strengthening the supply chain of essential ingredients and materials,” Dawn O’Connell, Health and Human Services assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said in a news release.
A second military flight will also transport Nestlé formula from Ramstein Air Base in Germany to Washington Dulles International Airport in the coming days. FedEx Express will then ship the formula onward to a Nestlé plant in Pennsylvania.
The defense secretary approved military aircraft for the shipments on Friday evening, because no commercial aircraft were available. The process to ship formula from abroad would typically take two weeks. Instead, it took about three days because of the administration’s work behind the scenes, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One as President Joe -Biden headed to Japan on Sunday morning.
“This is a testament of the president’s commitment to pulling every lever to get more infant formula onto the market,” she said. “And Operation Fly Formula is one tool that we are using to do so.”
Jean-Pierre added that the formula was manufactured in a facility approved by the Food and Drug Administration and that the White House is working with the Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments to ensure the formula “goes to those who need it the most.”
Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, estimated that the formula supplies in Sunday’s shipment would cover about 15% of the overall volume needed in the United States for specialty medical-grade formula.
“These planes that are landing right now are going to provide some incremental relief in the coming days,” Deese said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We’re going to keep working on it over the course of the week.”
The imports will fill immediate gaps while also buying time for domestic manufacturers to ramp up production. The military’s involvement in transporting baby formula reflects the urgency of the shortage, which is particularly hitting medically vulnerable babies and some older children who may rely on formula because of life-threatening food allergies.
The formula shortfall comes amid global supply chain disruptions tied to the coronavirus pandemic. But the shortage worsened when Abbott Laboratories recalled products manufactured at a facility in Sturgis, Mich., after a sanitation scare in which four infants fell ill, two of whom died later. The plant was later closed, but the FDA has since reached an agreement with Abbott to reopen the facility.
Abbott CEO Robert Ford said Saturday that the company expects to be able to safely reopen the facility by the first week in June and that it would take six to eight weeks after reopening before the product is available in stores.
“When we are operating our Michigan facility at full capacity, we will more than double our current production of powdered infant formula for the United States,” Ford wrote. “By the end of June, we will be supplying more formula to Americans than we were in January before the recall.”
Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday that he was “so encouraged” by what U.S. troops had been able to accomplish in two days to help with the shortage.
“A C-17 that could fly howitzers into Germany to support Ukraine turns around and flies 71,000 pounds of baby formula,” Mullen said on ABC News’s “This Week.”
The formula will be tested by the FDA before being distributed, he added.
“I hope the testing by the FDA doesn’t last too long and we distribute it as rapidly as possible,” Mullen said.
Abbott is one of four major companies that are responsible for about 90% of the infant formula supply in the United States. It is also a major supplier to WIC, a food assistance program for women and babies. Caregivers are usually restricted to one brand of baby formula with WIC vouchers, but Congress recently passed legislation allowing participants to buy whatever brand is available.
The baby formula bill was flown out to Seoul so Biden could sign it during a trip to Asia that began Friday, according to a White House official.
Indiana is one of a handful of states that do not have WIC contracts with Abbott. It has already allowed mothers who receive WIC assistance to buy other brands.
There have been reports of infants hospitalized in South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee because of the formula shortage. On Sunday, New York Mayor Eric Adams, D, declared a state of emergency over the formula shortage.
The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.