Experts question if ‘Operation Fly Formula’ resolves baby food shortage or just ‘political theater’?

Amid the media frenzy of First Lady Jill Biden and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy meeting a military flight laden with baby formula from Europe at Dulles International Airport, experts are wondering if “Operation Fly Formula” can actually make a dent in the shortage that is panicking parents in America or if the whole thing is little more than “political theater.”

“On the one hand, it’s political theater because the president wants to be seen to be doing something — and so I appreciate that — [but] its actual impact is limited,” Peter Pitts, a former commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told The Hill.

President Biden launched the U.S. military airlift of hundreds of thousands of pounds of baby formula from Switzerland to Indiana last week in an attempt to mitigate the supply chain issues and contamination recalls that have left American shelves empty and some infants with special dietary needs in crisis.

As the first 70,000-pound shipment touched down, Biden sent a victory tweet.

“Folks, I’m excited to tell you that the first flight from Operation Fly Formula is loaded up with more than 70,000 pounds of infant formula and about to land in Indiana,” he stated. “Our team is working around the clock to get safe formula to everyone who needs it.”

The delivery, which included three types of formulas specifically for those babies with allergies to cow milk proteins, coupled with the second 100,000-pound shipment that arrived Wednesday, works out to the equivalent of 1.5 million eight-ounce bottles of available formula. And according to Nada Sanders, a professor of supply chain management at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, that won’t be nearly enough to meet demand.

“I did not see this as this gesture as much as I saw that the only way it could possibly have any meaning is to actually be the beginning of a number of shipments that would be coming,” she said. “However, it’s my understanding that this is just going to be the beginning.”

According to Pitts, who is currently the president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, says that crucial shipment of hypoallergenic formula won’t begin to meet the needs across the board.

“I think if the president had said, you know, this is not the solution to the problem, but it’s something we can do right now for those infants most at risk, I think that would have been [better] than a grand announcement that’s going to have significant but limited impact for the majority of American parents,” he said.

During her speech on Wednesday, Jill Biden stressed that the shipments “are only one part of the strategy” and promised that her husband’s administration “won’t stop until every parent can get the formula their child needs.”

And FDA Commissioner Robert Califf has claimed the domestic supply of  baby formula “should be beyond normal” within the next two months.

Sanders believes that is an overly ambitious prediction and believes three months to get everything back up and running is more realistic.

“I think the best-case scenario, if… everything was functioning perfectly, it would really take two to three months to get the production process, deliveries to be functioning,” she said.

Meanwhile, as American Wire reported, Abbott Laboratories, one of the nation’s leading producers of baby formula, has apologized for its role in the supply crisis and detailed the “serious steps” it is taking to solve the problems brought on by the company’s voluntary recall of several of its powdered formula products.

“We’re sorry to every family we’ve let down since our voluntary recall exacerbated our nation’s baby formula shortage,” said Abbott CEO Robert Ford.

The recall came after four infants who had all consumed products produced at Abbott’s Sturgis, MI, plant fell ill, two fatally. While it was ultimately discovered the illnesses were not related to Abbott’s products, the CEO defended the company’s caution in implementing a recall.

“We believe our voluntary recall was the right thing to do,” said Ford. “We will not take risks when it comes to the health of children.”

Plans to get “safe, quality formula” back on the shelves include repurposing production lines at Abbott’s Columbus, OH, plants to “prioritize production of ready-to-feed liquid infant formula” and air-shipping “millions of cans” of its most popular powdered infant formula to the U.S. from an FDA-approved facility in Ireland.

Additionally, Abbott has set up an independently administered $5 million fund to help the families of those children hospitalized as a result of the shortage of EleCare, a special-needs formula, “with medical and living expenses as they weather this storm.”

To supplement the international shipments, Biden has also invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA), which grants the President emergency authority over the control of domestic industries.

“The Defense Production Act gives the government the ability to require suppliers to direct needed resources to infant formula manufacturers before any other customer who may have ordered that good,” the President said.

But according to Pitts, the invocation of the DPA was largely symbolic.

“What the Defense Production Act does is prioritize delivery to baby formula manufacturers all the ingredients that they need, and those ingredients are largely corn syrup, rice, starch, and protein derived from cow’s milk commodities,” he said. “Not one serving of baby formula has been delayed because of ingredients supply chain issues with those companies.”

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