US to use military-contracted planes to fly in baby formula

President Biden invokes Defence Production Act to address shortage

Empty shelves in the baby formula aisle of a store in Albany, California this week. Bloomberg
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The US government will fly in baby formula on commercial planes contracted by the military in an airlift aimed at easing the major shortage plaguing the country, the White House has announced.

The lack of formula — the result of a perfect storm of supply chain issues and a massive recall — is making parents increasingly desperate and has become a political headache for President Joe Biden as midterm elections loom.

The Department of Defence “will use its contracts with commercial air cargo lines, as it did to move materials during the early months of the Covid pandemic, to transport products from manufacturing facilities abroad that have met Food and Drug Administration (FDA) safety standards", the White House said on Wednesday.

“Bypassing regular air freighting routes will speed up the importation and distribution of formula and serve as an immediate support as manufacturers continue to ramp up production,” it said, naming the effort “Operation Fly Formula”, which attracted immediate derision online.

Mr Biden has also invoked the Defence Production Act to give baby formula manufacturers first priority in supplies.

“Directing firms to prioritise and allocate the production of key infant formula inputs will help increase production and speed up supply chains,” the White House said.

Initially caused by supply chain blockages and a lack of production workers due to the pandemic, the shortage was exacerbated in February when, after the death of two infants, manufacturer Abbott announced a “voluntary recall” for formula made at its factory in Michigan and shut down that location.

A subsequent investigation cleared the formula, and the FDA reached an agreement on Monday with Abbott to resume production. But it will take weeks to get the critical product back on store shelves.

The shortage has left many parents frantic and fearful their infants may starve. Formula is a necessity for many families, particularly in low-income households in which mothers have to return to work almost immediately after giving birth and cannot breastfeed.

A further issue is that prices for formula have skyrocketed.

The desperation of parents is highlighted on social media, where posts shared hundreds of thousands of times urge people to make formula at home — a move paediatricians advise against.

The formula shortage also has political consequences, with the Republican opposition — which has set its sights on wresting back control of Congress in November's midterm elections — seizing on the issue to berate Mr Biden and the Democrats.

— With AFP

Updated: May 19, 2022, 1:56 PM