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THURSDAY, May 26, 2022 – At least some American parents and caregivers needing formula for their infants will be able to find it on store shelves as soon as this weekend.
About 60 tons of formula arrived at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, as part of the Biden Administration's Operation Fly Formula. It contains hypoallergenic Nestle Gerber Good Start Extensive HA formula, which will head to a Nestle distribution center in Pennsylvania and then immediately be sent to hospitals, WIC families and retailers nationwide.
First lady Jill Biden and US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy were both on hand to witness the arrival of the formula as it was flown in from Ramstein Air Base in Germany, CNN reported.
"I've been heartbroken to hear the stories of parents searching for formula. As a mom and a nana, it's impossible to hear stories of children suffering and not imagine your own children in the same position," Biden said. "There is more to do. We know that. Joe knows that."
This is the second arrival of formula from overseas companies. More is expected in the coming days, according to US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
Abbott Nutrition's leadership apologized on Wednesday for the company's role in a nationwide shortage of infant formula. The shortage was exacerbated when one of Abbott's plants was closed in February for what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration called “insanitary conditions.”
"On behalf of everyone at Abbott, I want to express our extraordinary disappointment about the shortage. We are deeply, deeply sorry," Chris Calamari, who leads Abbott's nutrition division, said at a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation.
The company is expected to begin making batches of formula at its Sturgis, Mich., plant on June 4 and have them on store shelves around June 20. The plant can increase capacity by 40% after it's in operation, Calamari said.
Calamari detailed the company's supply-boosting plans, which include shipping formula on nearly 50 flights a week to 12 airports across the country. The company has converted manufacturing facilities to make formula. It is also working with U.S. Department of Agriculture WIC agencies to provide formula for free to program participants, CNN reported.
"By the end of June, we expect we will be supplying more formula to Americans than we were in January, before the recall," he told lawmakers.
America's other large formula maker is also helping to alleviate the shortage by increasing production. According to company Senior Vice President Robert Cleveland, Mead Johnson Nutrition (a subsidiary of Reckitt) has increased its supply by more than 30% compared to this time last year.
"We're taking all of these measures while keeping a close eye on quality and safety to ensure that we always meet the near-pharmaceutical-grade safety requirements that apply to infant formula production. We will take no shortcuts," Cleveland said.
Gerber's Vice President of Technical Production Scott Fitz testified at Wednesday's hearing that his company is also "working tirelessly to help parents and caregivers get the formula that they need,” CNN reported.
"Our factories run 24/7 to produce formula as efficiently as possible while maintaining our high safety standards. We are prioritizing the manufacture of products that are most in-demand as well as specialty formulas that have been in critically short supply," Fitz said.
Typically, state agencies contract with one of three main baby formula manufacturers for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, also known as WIC, and people in the program can only buy from that specific company.
Hoping to expand options for families, the USDA announced an exception on Wednesday, CNN reported. It will temporarily cover the costs of alternative brands, sizes and forms of formula for low-income families in states that contract with Reckitt or Gerber for their supply. Abbott is paying the difference in other states.
More than half of U.S. formula goes to infants in the WIC program.
"Just clarifying that the non-Abbott states can be adding new brands as well is a big piece, which is a position that neither the companies nor USDA had been in a place to say before," said Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy with the nonprofit National WIC Association. "That really makes a lot more options for those states."
President Biden signed the Access to Baby Formula Act on Saturday, allowing this flexibility.
"We encourage states and their formula manufacturers to work together to maximize access to infant formula for WIC participants, and USDA will provide the funding to make that possible," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday.
In another measure to increase formula supplies, the FDA is also allowing Britain-based Kendal Nutricare to import baby formula to the U.S., including two million cans that will be in stores in June.
WIC's Dittmeier suggested examining the shortage to address how a shut down at one plant can cause such shortages.
"Frankly, a national security concern here has been exposed," he said. "This is an essential product for the country," he said. "This has exposed a weakness in our essential supply line, and that needs to be remedied quickly."
The American Academy of Pediatrics has tips for parents during the formula shortage.
By Cara Murez and Ernie Mundell HealthDay Reporters
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