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US military arranges 1st flights of infant formula from Switzerland

‘Operation Fly Formula’ gets underway to help Nestle import 3 brands amid shortage

A shipment of medical supplies gets moved from an aircraft after delivery to Chicago O'Hare International Airport. (Photo: FEMA/ Alexis Hall)

The first emergency flights of infant formula under the U.S. government’s new Operation Fly Formula will transport formula made by Nestle S.A. from Zurich to Plainfield, Indiana, the White House said Thursday.

The Defense Department is combing through its list of approved commercial airline contractors to identify the best aircraft to fulfill the transport request from the Department of Agriculture.

A series of Operation Fly Formula flights will transport the equivalent of up to 1.5 million 8-ounce bottles of three formulas — Alfamino Infant, Alfamino Junior and Gerber Good Start Extensive HA — which are hypoallergenic formulas for children with cow’s milk protein allergy. The shipments will include about 246 pallets.

The formulas are being prioritized because they serve a critical medical purpose and are in short supply in the U.S. after Abbott Laboratories’ (NYSE: ABT) Sturgis, Michigan, plant was closed due to contamination concerns. 

President Joe Biden established Operation Fly Formula on Wednesday to speed up the import of baby formula and help make up for a domestic shortfall that has resulted in empty retail shelves across the country, sending parents hunting far and wide to find food for their infants. The acute shortage is beginning to result in hospitalizations for some babies that aren’t receiving proper nutrition.

Under the emergency program, U.S. Transportation Command will select airlines that provide airlift to the government under existing contracts. The carriers belong to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, a national security program under which cargo and passenger airlines agree to make aircraft available to the military during a national security crisis in exchange for being preferred vendors of transport services during peacetime.

The Defense Department is coordinating Operation Fly Formula with the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, which are responsible for identifying formulas that meet U.S. health and safety standards. 

“Once we have identified a manufacturer that has available formula, we work with them to secure the specifics,” a senior administration official said Thursday during a White House background briefing for the media on steps to address the infant formula shortage. Aircraft will land at airfields close to the overseas manufacturing facility and be delivered to one of the company’s domestic facilities where the product must be inspected by the FDA.

“And then we will, from there, work through vendors and retailers to come to that manufacturing facility to pick it up and hopefully get it out to the communities that are most in need,” said the official, who is not allowed to be named.

Nestle, headquartered in Vevey, Switzerland, has increased airfreight shipments on its own since Abbott’s recall and Sturgis shutdown in February to bring in formula from the Netherlands and Switzerland, FreightWaves previously reported.

Infant formula supplies were tight even before production stopped at the large Abbott facility because of ongoing supply chain bottlenecks.

The military-style airlift and activation of the Defense Production Act to prioritize ingredients for formula manufacturers are the strongest actions taken by the Biden administration, which is facing criticism that it didn’t act fast enough to address the shortage sooner. The Food and Drug Administration this week also said it will allow major formula makers to import products that are not currently being produced for the U.S. market and don’t meet normal regulatory requirements. 

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]