Emergency baby formula distribution
Katherine Gibson-Haynes helps distribute infant formula during a baby formula drive Saturday, May 14, 2022, in Houston. Parents seeking baby formula are running into bare supermarket and pharmacy shelves in part because of ongoing supply disruptions and a recent safety recall. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The first of many shipments comes after a Michigan factory shut down due to contamination—and days after Wisconsin Republicans voted against measures to prevent the crisis from repeating.

The first flight of baby formula from Europe arrived in the United States on Sunday as part of President Joe Biden’s effort to solve the shortage of the product—a crisis that has led to the hospitalization of infants in Wisconsin for malnutrition.

A military plane carrying 78,000 pounds of formula from Germany landed in Indiana as part of Operation Fly Formula, a program Biden authorized last week that allows for the use of military planes to import formula from abroad. 

The shipment is just the first of many, and is enough to provide for 9,000 babies and 18,000 toddlers for one week, according to US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The shipment also includes specialized formula for children with allergies who can’t consume regular formula, Vilsack told reporters in Indianapolis, where the plane landed. 

“Typically, the process to transport this product from Europe to the US would take two weeks. Thanks to Operation Fly Formula, we cut that down to approximately three days,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One Sunday.

Operation Fly Formula is just one step of many that the Biden administration has taken to solve the growing crisis, which was caused by years of market consolidation, labor shortages, and the closure of a key formula manufacturing plant in Michigan after it was found to be contaminated.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Abbott Laboratories, the Sturgis, Michigan-based plant that was under investigation, have reached an agreement to reopen the plant—likely by the end of the month. It could take several more weeks for new products to arrive in grocery stores, so until then, Biden has also taken additional steps to address the shortage.

Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act, a war-time measure that will ensure formula producers, like Abbott, can get the supplies they need (corn syrup and sugar) to ramp up production. The White House has said this will allow Abbott to increase production by one-third. 

Biden also signed into law a bill to expand formula access for participants in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which typically places restrictions on which brands or types of formula families can buy. The new law allows for more flexibility and allows families to purchase whatever formula is available to them in stores. House Democrats also passed a bill last week to provide $28 million to address the shortage and improve the FDA’s oversight of formula producers—both domestic and foreign—to reduce the likelihood of a shortage like this ever happening again. 

Nearly 200 Republicans, including every Wisconsin Republican in the House, voted against the bill, and it appears unlikely to clear the Senate, where Republicans have also indicated they will oppose it.

In the short-term however, efforts like Operation Fly Formula will help fill some of the gaps on grocery shelves. 

The flights are intended to provide “some incremental relief in the coming days” as the government works on a long-term response to the shortage, Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, said Sunday.

Longer term, Deese said, the US needs more formula providers “so that no individual company has this much control over supply chains.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.