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Biden launches emergency airlift to pick up baby formula overseas

Operation Fly Formula, Defense Production Act are latest actions to overcome production shortage

The White House is running a replay of Project Airbridge in 2020, when FEMA chartered planes to bring to decrease the shipping time for critical supplies, such as N-95 respirators, surgical masks, gloves and gowns. (Photo: Alexis Hall/FEMA)

President Joe Biden late Wednesday mobilized an airlift of infant formula from foreign countries to the U.S. and ordered suppliers to prioritize formula manufacturers to address a severe domestic shortage that has panicked parents nationwide.

The White House said it has launched Operation Fly Formula to speed the import of baby formula and get it to stores as soon as possible. 

Biden directed the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture to use Defense Department commercial aircraft to pick up overseas infant formula that meets U.S. health and safety standards. The DoD will use its contracts with commercial cargo airlines to transport products from manufacturing facilities abroad that have met Food and Drug Administration safety standards. 

Chartering freighters on an emergency basis rather than booking shipments through regular logistics channels will speed distribution and serve as an immediate support for manufacturers as they boost domestic production, the White House said.

The arrangement is similar to the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency contracted with cargo airlines in Project Airbridge to rush supplies of personal protective equipment, ventilators and other health care equipment from overseas at the start of the COVID pandemic to reduce delivery times amid widespread inventory shortages.

The president also invoked the Defense Production Act to ensure manufacturers have the necessary ingredients to safely make more infant formula and speed up production. The national security order requires suppliers to give needed resources to infant formula makers before any other customers who may have ordered the ingredients or related products. 

“Imports of baby formula will serve as a bridge to this ramped up production, therefore, I am requesting you take all appropriate measures available to get additional safe formula into the country immediately,” Biden wrote in a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Bacerra and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

On Monday, the FDA and the Justice Department entered into a consent decree with Abbott Laboratories (NYSE: ABT) outlining the steps Abbott Lab (NYSE: ABT) will take to reopen its Sturgis, Michigan, plant that was shut in February after four infants became ill due to suspected bacterial contamination of their formula. The closure of one of the largest infant formula production facilities amplified manufacturing delays across the industry caused by supply chain pinch points and transportation delays.

The Biden Administration has also cut red tape that made it difficult for companies to import formula made abroad. Towards that end, the FDA also announced guidance that will allow major formula manufacturers to safely import formula not currently being produced for the U.S. market. It also loosened rules to enable manufacturers to produce more formula and eligibility rules for food stamp recipients so stores can hike orders.

 “The administration remains in close touch with manufacturers and retailers to identify transportation and logistical needs to increase the amount and speed of FDA approved formula being shipped into the country, and ensure that formula is quickly moving from factories to retailers,” the White House said.

“Today’s steps further underscore the administration’s commitment to addressing the formula shortage quickly and safely, and the administration will continue working overtime to get more formula to stores as soon as possible,” it said.

Industry estimates on how much formula is out of stock vary from about 20% to 40%.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]