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Baby formula arrives in Indianapolis from Germany on US military aircraft to address critical need

<i>Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images</i><br/>
Getty Images
Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

By Polo Sandoval and Samantha Beech, CNN

A shipment of 35 tons of baby formula has arrived Sunday in Indianapolis on a US military aircraft from Germany to address a nationwide shortage.

The prescription formula will be distributed to areas around the country where there is the most acute need, a Biden administration official earlier told CNN. But the official said none of the first shipment would land on store shelves in the US, adding that Sunday’s shipment is hypoallergenic and will be fed to babies intolerant of protein in cow milk.

The shipment included 132 pallets of formula, which arrived on one C-17 cargo plane. The formula originated from Zurich, Switzerland, and was trucked to Germany, where it was loaded on the C-17 and flown to the US.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who greeted the arrival of the delivery in Indianapolis, said Sunday’s shipment — the first of Operation Fly Formula — would provide enough formula for 9,000 babies and 18,000 toddlers for one week.

“It is a large shipment of very specific and specialized formula. Formula for moms and dads who have children who have allergies where the regular formula just simply will not work,” the secretary said at a news conference in Indianapolis shortly after the shipment landed.

The Biden administration official told CNN earlier that the product contained in the first shipment will be distributed to hospitals, doctors, home health care facilities and pharmacies in regions “where the needs are most acute.”

The aircraft on Sunday transported pallets of Nestlé Health Science formula — including Alfamino Infant and Alfamino Junior. At the site of the arrival in Indianapolis, a Nestlé spokesperson said, “Some cases are ready for distribution in the next couple of days. Others will be released into the supply chain after standard quality testing is completed.”

The White House announced later Sunday that the second flight of Operation Fly Formula, which includes “114 pallets of Gerber Good Start® Extensive HA infant formula,” was expected to “take place in the coming days.”

The White House said the “total amount of formula arriving in the first round of Operation Fly Formula” is the equivalent of 1.5 million doses of eight-ounce bottles.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced Operation Fly Formula, which directs the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture to utilize the Defense Department’s commercial planes to import formula from abroad.

Separately, the Biden administration on Sunday evening announced the first two Defense Production Act authorizations for infant formula amid the ongoing nationwide formula shortage. The two “priority orders,” the administration said, are Reckitt and Abbott Nutrition, the baby formula manufacturer at the heart of a nationwide formula recall. The authorizations would allow those companies to urgently receive materials such as sugar, corn syrup, filters, which help make formula.

Frustration for American families

The shipment comes as the shortage of baby formula has caused major disruptions and frustration for some desperate American families. Already, some families have begun rationing their supply of formula, while others have turned to hospitals when they can’t find the kind they need.

And in a clear sign of the deep effects of the crisis, a doctor at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, said last week that he admitted two young patients — a toddler and a preschooler — because the specialty formula they need is out of stock and they haven’t been able to tolerate any replacements.

Clinical dietitians at Medical University of South Carolina Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital in Charleston have reported that at least four babies were recently hospitalized for complications related to the ongoing formula shortage, according to a spokesperson for MUSC.

The spokesperson said three of the four babies were hospitalized due to intolerance of formula that parents had to try because of shortages, while one was sickened by mineral imbalances from caregivers mixing their own formula.

On Sunday, New York City Mayor Eric Adams declared a state of emergency over the nationwide shortage of the supply of infant formula.

A statement from his office said the move would “empower the New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP) to prevent price gouging for formula.”

Retailers nationwide have been struggling to keep shelves fully stocked as supply chain problems persist, slowing down both production and distribution of goods.

According to market research firm IRI, stores’ infant formula inventories in mid-January were down 17% from where they were in mid-February 2020, just before the pandemic hit US shores.

The shutting down of the country’s largest formula plant in February exacerbated pandemic-related supply chain issues and supercharged the nationwide shortage.

The out-of-stock rate for baby formula hovered between 2% and 8% in the first half of 2021, but began rising sharply last July. Between November 2021 and early April 2022, the out-of-stock rate jumped to 31%, data from Datasembly showed. That rate increased another 9 percentage points in just three weeks in April, and now stands at 40%, the statistics show.

The baby formula shortage has thrown the White House into crisis mode and opened yet another political wound going into an already challenging midterm election season, frustrating the West Wing and the rest of the administration as they struggle with how little control they have over a situation that is centered at the US Food and Drug Administration, an independent agency that the White House neither controls nor gets direct reports from.

Officials have faced criticism that the FDA moved too slowly to address warning signs. At the same time, they have been attempting to learn whether formula companies are actually short on ingredients, while also trying to tackle potential price gouging.

Vilsack said in Indianapolis on Sunday that the federal government is working with suppliers of baby formula in the US to increase production and address the nationwide shortage.

He had said the government is working to help get the Abbott facility in Michigan up and running, through the aid of the Defense Production Act.

The agriculture secretary also said an agreement with the FDA would allow the Abbott facility and others to “jump ahead of line for the necessary supplies that are necessary and required in order to produce the formula.”

More flights expected

Earlier Sunday, President Joe Biden touted the first flight from his administration’s baby formula airlift operation on Twitter.

“Folks, I’m excited to tell you that the first flight from Operation Fly Formula is loaded up with more than 70,000 pounds of infant formula and about to land in Indiana. Our team is working around the clock to get safe formula to everyone who needs it,” Biden said on Twitter.

National Economic Council director Brian Deese told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday that as part of the airlift operation, more flights with baby formula “will be coming in early this week.”

“We’re going to keep ramping that up until we get there,” Deese said.

Pressed by Bash on how the US ended up in a position in which baby formula has to be airlifted into the country, Deese in part blamed market consolidation.

“It goes back to this question of how we can bring more competition in our economy, have more providers have this formula so that no individual company has this much control over supply chains,” he said.

The Biden administration official told CNN earlier that the product was coming from a factory that has already gone through US FDA approval — meaning US inspectors would only need to conduct “spot checks” Sunday after the product lands. Those checks include ensuring that the product was not damaged in transit and has appropriate labeling. An FDA inspector was onsite to conduct the spot check. Separately, Nestlé is also going to conduct its own quality check at its local distribution site.

“This shipment is essentially going to get off this cargo plane, then the Federal Express folks are going to take it from there, they are going to deliver it to a distribution center that the Nestlé Gerber folks have here in Indiana, and then it’s going to go on trucks and it’s going to be delivered in hospitals and home health care clinics across the country, providing support and help,” Vilsack said Sunday.

Additionally, the Biden administration is engaged in conversations with makers of other European baby formula to approve and obtain excess supplies for US distribution, the administration official told CNN.

Indianapolis was chosen as the arrival site for the formula because the Nestlé distribution site is located there. The official added that the administration is plugging into the existing distribution chain.

“We’re turning a two-week process into 72 hours,” the official said.

This story and headline have been updated for additional developments.

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the timeline of the first round of Operation Fly Formula’s arrival in the United States.

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CNN’s Sam Fossum, Kaitlan Collins, Brenda Goodman, Nadia Kounang, Jen Christensen, Parija Kavilanz, Ramishah Maruf and Zachary B. Wolf contributed to this report.

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