Ag Secretary Vilsack greets first infant formula shipment

Photo from President Biden’s Twitter account

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is playing a vital role addressing the infant formula shortages caused by Abbott Nutrition’s voluntary recall.

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack was in Indianapolis on Sunday to meet the first shipment of formula brought to the U.S. under Operation Fly Formula.

“We’re sending, through the Department of Defense, airplanes to Zürich Switzerland to pick up one and a half million containers of 8-ounces of formula each and bringing them to Indiana where they will then be distributed, based on FDA information, to locations where there are shortages,” he says. “This formula is specifically designed to help those kids who have an allergy to cow-milk protein, for example. All of these steps are being taken in effort to try to relieve some of the stress that many American families have felt over the course of the last several weeks.”

Vilsack says formula shortages are not due to tightness in U.S. dairy supplies.

“There’s not an issue of dairy in terms of dairy production in this country. We have adequate access and supply of dairy (products),” he says. “In fact, we produce more than we need and that’s why exports are so incredibly important to the dairy industry. Somewhere between 17 and 18 percent of dairy produced in this country is exported. We’d like to do more and that’s why we’re encouraging our Canadian friends to live up to the responsibilities under the USMCA. This is not a situation where we’re dealing with a shortage of milk.”

Last week, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to require suppliers to direct resources to formula manufactures and launch Operation Fly Formula to speed up the import of specialty formula. DPA was also invoked to alleviate supply chain disruptions in the meat packing sector during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Department of Health and Human Services and USDA are using Department of Defense commercial aircraft to pick up overseas infant formula that meets U.S. health and safety standards. More than 130 pallets of Nestle Health Science Alfamino® Infant and Alfamino® Junior formula arrived in Indianapolis this weekend.

He says the FDA is hopeful there will be more product on shelves in the coming days.

“And, within a matter of a couple of weeks, the hope is that we’re getting back to where things were prior to the plant shutting down and at that point in time, perhaps some of the stress folks are feeling will be relieved,” he says.

The administration continues to take steps to address the formula shortage.

In late February, Abbott Nutrition recalled some of its infant formula products and closed its Michigan plant after reports of a serious bacterial infection. Vilsack says it caused a significant disruption as Abbott is a major producer of formula in the United States. 

“USDA, which operates the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program that is responsible for distributing about 50 percent of all the formula that’s used in this country immediately notified the 86 or so WIC-agencies of the recall and encouraged them to utilize the flexibility under the program so that people could potentially still get access to some formula,” he says.

He says the next step was to look at importing formula from other countries.

“The next step, while FDA was working with Abbott to fix the problem in the production facility, was to look at whether or not product could be imported from other countries safely,” he says. “The challenge sometimes with other country imports is they have labels that are in different languages and people may assume all formula is the same. Well, that’s no true and some children, for example, are allergic to cow-milk proteins. So, it’s important and necessary as we import product, we do so in a way that ensures safety and that takes a little time.”

The next challenge, Vilsack says, was ensuring Abbott had the necessary formula ingredients to continue production.

“That’s why it was important for the President to authorize the use of the Defense Production Act recently so that Abbott would be able to get priority access to the ingredients necessary to produce the formula,” he says. “It’s going to take Abbott a few weeks to get back to full production, so that’s why the President directed the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services to do what we could to secure additional supplies from other sources.”

The USDA says additional flights will be announced in the coming days.

Audio: Tom Vilsack

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