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How far will Operation Fly Formula shipments really go to fill America’s store shelves?

By Brenda Goodman and Deidre McPhillips, CNN

The first shipments from the federal government’s Operation Fly Formula will bring a total of nearly 1 million pounds of baby formula powder into the United States. That’s just a fraction of what the nation’s families need — about the same amount of formula typically sold over two days in the US — but it is a jump-start to easing the shortage.

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

That’s a sizable amount, but how far will that formula really go toward filling America’s bare store shelves?

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

The 960,000 pounds coming in through the Operation Fly Formula shipments accounts for about two days’ worth of typical formula sales or about 6% of the powdered formula sold in an average month in 2020 and 2021, according to a CNN analysis. CNN looked back at those years because they represent more typical consumption in a very stable market, before a nationwide 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. Its data shows that about 26% of formula products were out of stock in the last week of May, up from 10% before the recall.

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

IRI did not want to comment on the White House activities specifically but agreed that the analysis was accurate. It noted that, for most products, adding 6% of product into the mix can help ease tension in a strained market.

Also, IRI’s sales data represents national figures, and the Operation Fly Formula deliveries may have more of an impact in certain places, especially for those who need specialty formula.

Other experts agree.

“It will make a noticeable difference,” said Dr. Steve Abrams, immediate past chair of the American Association of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition.

Abrams says Abbott Nutrition’s Sturgis, Michigan, factory once churned out between 15% and 20% of all the baby formula produced in the US.

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

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

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

Abrams says that although just three international manufacturers have gotten an OK from the FDA to sell new-to-the-US products here, he has heard that several dozen companies have requested clearance. So he expects that more products will soon be on the way.

But beyond the sheer numbers, Abrams says, appearances will be important. Because these formula brands haven’t been seen in the US before, he thinks people are really going to take notice when they arrive — a solid sign that help is on the way.

“When these formulas hit the stores, I think you’re going to see a lot of easing up on hoarding and stressing,” said Abrams, who is also a neonatologist at the University of Texas Dell Medical School. “I think that there’s going to be this big hurrah when people can go to Target and see formula again. So that effect may exceed the volume amount.”

Some of that formula arrived Thursday. Nestle says 62,500 cans of Nan Supreme Pro 1 will be sold through the websites of Gerber, Walmart, Kroger and Amazon within a few days of arrival.

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

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