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78,000 pounds of infant formula arrives Sunday in Indianapolis

A U.S. Air Force plane from Ramstein Air Base in Germany landed at the Indianapolis International Airport on Sunday, May 22, 2022 with 132 pallets of specialty infant formula that will be distributed across the country.
Provided by United States Transportation Command
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A U.S. Air Force plane from Ramstein Air Base in Germany landed at the Indianapolis International Airport on Sunday, May 22, 2022 with 132 pallets of specialty infant formula that will be distributed across the country.

Enough specialty infant formula for more than half a million baby bottles arrived Sunday in Indianapolis.

It is the first of several flights carrying infant formula from Europe expected this weekend to relieve the deepening shortage in the U.S.. The flights were authorized by Biden, and Indianapolis was chosen because it is a Nestle distribution hub.

The formula will be taken from the airport to a Nestle distribution center, about a mile away, where the company will do a standard quality control check before distributing the supplies to hospitals, pharmacies and doctors' offices, according to an administration official on site.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was in Indianapolis to greet the arrival of the shipment. The Biden administration — which has struggled to address the nationwide shortage of formula, particularly hypoallergenic varieties — has dubbed the effort "Operation Fly Formula." The crisis follows the closure of the nation's largest domestic manufacturing plant, Abbott Nutrition, in Michigan in February, due to safety issues.

Altogether, about 1.5 million 8-ounce bottles of the three formulas that are hypoallergenic for children with cow's milk protein allergy are expected to arrive in Indianapolis this week.

Riley Children’s Health Chief Medical Information Officer Dr. Emily Webber said some children need a prescription for specialized formula that cannot be substituted.

"For some of these children, their bodies simply can't break down the nutrition in other types of formulas,” Webber said.

Webber said even if a child can use a substitution, it is still a challenge to find formula in stock.

“We're used to changing prescriptions and helping them track that down,” Webber said. “But in this particular scenario, there's just a disruption. So there's not additional substitutions for some of these families."

The formula, weighing 78,000 pounds (35,380 kilograms), was transported by military plane, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One, as President Joe Biden flew from South Korea to Japan.

Air Force planes are transporting the initial batch of formula because no commercial flights were available this weekend.

The flight was the first of several to provide "some incremental relief in the coming days" as the government works on a more lasting response to the shortage, Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, said Sunday.

Webber said the shipment was hopeful.

“We’re just very glad and grateful for the support of this particular initiative,” Webber said. “And we're looking forward to getting that nutrition in the hands of our families and their babies.”

Webber advises parents to connect with resources like pediatricians and community supports while they wait for factory production to resume. She warns against shortcuts parents might be tempted to take while the shortage continues.

“There's so much pressure, if you're a parent and you're seeing empty shelves in your stores,” Webber said. “We don't want anyone trying to make their own formula or try to water it down. That would be very dangerous, actually.”

The White House has said 132 pallets of Nestlé Health Science Alfamino Infant and Alfamino Junior formula flew from Ramstein Air Base in Germany to the U.S.. Another 114 pallets of Gerber Good Start Extensive HA formula are expected to arrive in the coming days.Alfamino is primarily available through hospitals and home health care companies that serve patients at home.

Deese told CNN's "State of the Union" that Sunday's flight brought 15% of the specialty medical grade formula needed in the U.S., and because of various actions by the government, people should see "more formula in stores starting as early as this week."

Longer term, he said, the U.S. needs more formula providers "so that no individual company has this much control over supply chains."

Under "Operation Fly Formula," the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services are authorized to request Department of Defense support to pick up overseas infant formula that meets U.S. health and safety standards, so it can get to store shelves faster, according to the USDA.

U.S. regulators and manufacturer Abbott Nutrition hope to have the Michigan plant reopened next week, but it will take about two months before product is ready for delivery.

The Food and Drug Administration this week eased importation requirements for baby formula to try to ease the supply crunch, which has left store shelves void of some brands and some retailers rationing supply for parents nervous about feeding their children.

Copyright 2022 WFYI Public Radio. To see more, visit WFYI Public Radio.

Darian Benson is a reporter based at WFYI in Indianapolis. An Indy native, she is eager to report on public health in her hometown. Darian graduated with a journalism degree from Indiana Unviersity- Purdue University Indianapolis. Previously, she covered city and public policy for WFYI and statewide public health for Indiana Public Broadcasting.