How far will Operation Fly Formula shipments actually go to fill US store shelves?

According to the White House, the first two flights of Operation Fly Formula brought in 170,000 pounds of Gerber and Alfamino formulas. Subsequent announcements included 300,000 pounds of two types of formula made in the UK by Kendamil, 380,000 pounds of baby formula from Australia’s Bubs brand and 110,000 pounds of a formula made in Germany by Nestlé called Nan Supreme Pro. Together that’s 960,000 pounds of infant formula, enough to make 11.4 million 8-ounce bottles.

That’s a considerable amount, but how far does this formula really go to fill empty American store shelves?

One way to answer this question is to look at the volume of dry formula that is typically sold each month in the US. According to market research firm Information Resources Incorporated, or IRI, an average of around 561,000 pounds of dry powder formula was sold every day in 2021, or around 17 million pounds a month.

The £960,000 from Operation Fly Formula shipments represents about two days of typical formula sales or about 6% of the powdered formula sold in an average month in 2020 and 2021, according to an analysis by CNN. CNN looked at these years because they represent more typical consumption in a very stable market, before a national formula recall worsened supply chain problems and led to an acute shortage in early 2022.

IRI data is often cited by the White House as a measure of the severity of the shortage. Their data shows that about 26% of formulated products were out of stock in the last week of May, up from 10% before the recall.

A White House spokesperson said CNN’s analysis is “in the ballpark” but that the missions announced so far are “only a small part” of the commitments made. More flights are “on the way and more to be announced”, which would bring 10 times more formula – enough to make a total of 127.5 million bottles. On Friday, the day after CNN shared that analysis, the White House announced the latest mission that is scheduled to bring another 212,000 pounds of formula to the US by the end of the month.

The IRI declined to comment specifically on White House activities, but agreed that the analysis was accurate. He noted that for most products, adding 6% of the product to the mix can help ease tension in a tense market.

Additionally, IRI sales data represents national numbers, and Operation Fly Formula deliveries may have more impact in certain locations, particularly for those who need special formulas.

Other experts agree.

“It will make a noticeable difference,” said Dr. Steve Abrams, immediate past chairman of the American Pediatric Association’s Nutrition Committee.

Abrams says that the Abbott Nutrition plant in Sturgis, Michigan, once produced between 15% and 20% of all infant formula produced in the US.

Abbott restarts production of specialty formulas at the Michigan plant

That facility reopened about a week after closing to remedy safety issues identified by a US Food and Drug Administration inspection. Abbott said it will focus initial production on manufacturing the EleCare specialty formula, an amino acid-based formula for babies and children with complex medical and digestive issues. It will start distributing EleCare around June 20th, but Similac powder will take weeks longer to come back.

“We are also working hard to complete the necessary steps to restart production of Similac and other formulas and will do so as soon as we can,” the company said on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the FDA is using its enforcement criteria to allow more international manufacturers to sell their baby formula in this country.

Abrams says that while only three international manufacturers have obtained FDA authorization to sell new products to the US here, he has heard that several dozen companies have applied for authorization. Therefore, he expects more products to be on the way soon.

But beyond the sheer numbers, says Abrams, appearances will be important. As these formula brands have never been seen in the US before, he thinks people will really notice when they arrive – a solid sign that help is on the way.

“Once these formulas hit the stores, I think you’re going to see a lot of easy buildup and stress,” said Abrams, who is also a neonatologist at the University of Texas Dell School of Medicine. “I think there’s going to be a big hoot when people can go to Target and see the formula again. So this effect could exceed the amount of volume.”

Part of that formula arrived on Thursday. Nestlé says 62,500 cans of Nan Supreme Pro 1 will be sold on Gerber, Walmart, Kroger and Amazon within days of arrival.

The company says it will sell the product online only to give parents and caregivers important instructions on how to use it.

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