On Wednesday, 60 tons of formula landed at Dulles International Airport in Washington from Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the second shipment from Europe as part of the Biden administration’s Operation Fly Formula. That effort was started to address the nationwide shortage that was exacerbated by the closure of formula maker Abbott Nutrition’s plant in February after several inspections by the US Food and Drug Administration found “insanitary conditions.”
Chris Calamari, who leads Abbott’s nutrition division, apologized for his company’s role in the shortage Wednesday at a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation.
“On behalf of everyone at Abbott, I want to express our extraordinary disappointment about the shortage. We are deeply, deeply sorry,” Calamari said.
Abbott said Tuesday that it plans to restart work at its Sturgis, Michigan, plant on June 4, with the first batches of new formula expected to be available to consumers on or around June 20. When the plant is up and running, it will be able to increase capacity by 40%, according to Calamari.
On Wednesday, Calamari outlined Abbott’s additional plans to boost supply by bringing in more formula on nearly 50 flights a week to 12 airports across the country. Abbott has also converted some of its manufacturing facilities to make formula and is working with US Department of Agriculture WIC agencies to make sure program participants get formula for free, Calamari said.
“By the end of June, we expect we will be supplying more formula to Americans than we were in January, before the recall,” he said.
More formula from companies made overseas is scheduled to arrive in the coming days, according to US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. First lady Jill Biden and US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy were on hand to greet Wednesday’s shipment.
“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.”
The latest shipment contains hypoallergenic Nestle Gerber Good Start Extensive HA formula. The company said the formula will head to a Nestle distribution center in Pennsylvania and will immediately be sent to hospitals, WIC families and retailers nationwide.
For the past few months, Nestle said, it has stepped up production and accelerated how it gets product to market and to hospitals.
Gerber 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.”
“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,” he said.
Robert Cleveland, a senior vice president at the other big formula maker in the US, Mead Johnson Nutrition, a Reckitt subsidiary that makes Enfamil and Nutramigen, said that his company has increased the supply of infant formula by more than 30% compared with this time last year. The company also has trucks ready to load as soon as the products are complete and has reduced the types of products it makes to get the formula out faster.
“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.
The USDA announced Wednesday that it will temporarily cover the costs of alternative brands, sizes and forms of formula for low-income families in states that have WIC contracts with manufacturers Reckitt or Gerber. Abbott is covering the cost difference in other states.
State agencies contract with one of the three main makers of baby formula to provide product to infants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, also known as WIC. Typically, people who use WIC benefits can buy only the brand of formula made by the company that the state has contracted with for that purpose. There are also restrictions on the sizes they can buy.
About half of US states and territories have contracts with Abbott, according to the USDA, but because the company had to recall some of its products, it has created an increased demand for other brands, and families are having a hard time finding those, too.
“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.”
He said those states aren’t seeing the greatest need, necessarily, “but it is definitely an area that we need more support.”
WIC is the largest purchaser of formula in the US, with more than half going to infants in the program.
The Access to Baby Formula Act, which Biden signed Saturday, gives the government this ability to be more flexible.
“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 in a news release Wednesday.
The FDA said Tuesday that it is doing “everything in our power” to make sure there is enough baby formula for parents and caregivers who need it, including discussions with other manufacturers and suppliers about bringing other formulas to the US.
The agency is allowing Kendal Nutricare, a company based in the UK, to import some of its baby formula to the US, and 2 million cans will be on US store shelves starting in June. The government is working with the company to fast-track its efforts to immediately send more than 40,000 cans that are now in stock.
Going forward, though, the country will need to take a closer look at why one plant can shut down and cause such shortages, Dittmeier said. The Abbott plant in Michigan, for example, is the only one of its facilities that produces specialty formulas like the ones given to infants who are allergic to milk.
“How do we spread this out a bit more?” Dittmeier asked.
“Frankly, a national security concern here has been exposed. This is 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.”