Irish milk formula industry weighs Biden’s emergency supplies call

US president invokes wartime measures to secure supplies as parents fret over feeding their children

Ireland's infant milk formula industry is assessing the impact of President Joe Biden's dramatic intervention in the US milk formula crisis on Thursday night.

Mr Biden invoked a wartime measure – the Defence Production Act – to force manufacturers of raw materials to prioritise supplies for US milk formula producers. He also authorised the use of US military aircraft to airlift emergency supplies from abroad, in what he called Operation Fly Formula, as the crisis threatens to become a political millstone for Democrats in an election year.

The shortage has made national headlines, with frustrated parents paying hundreds of dollars for a can of formula, travelling for hours to source rationed supplies where they are available at all, and contemplating DIY formula options despite strong warnings from medical authorities.

Ireland is a major producer of milk formula, with three of the major suppliers – Abbott, Danone and Nestlé – having substantial plants here. All three producers said they were in discussions with US authorities to see how they could work with the new Biden measures.

Abbott is already sending daily flights of formula to the US from its plant at Cootehill in Co Cavan.

Catalyst

The company was the catalyst that turned a shortage of domestic formula supplies into a national crisis when it had to shut down a large plant in Michigan after the regulator, the FDA, identified issues with cleanliness and poor working practices at the site.

The FDA action followed the hospitalisation of four babies, two of whom later died, due to a bacterial infection. All four used Abbott formula and the same bacteria – though not the same strain of it – was subsequently found in the Abbott plant.

On Friday, it was unable to say whether it had capacity at the Cavan factory to further increase shipments.

“We are already express air-freighting infant formula from our FDA-registered facility in Ireland and welcome any support that these added measures can provide in cutting red tape, increasing volume of imports and speeding up transport time from overseas to the US,” a spokeswoman said.

A spokesperson for Nestlé, which has a plant at Askeaton, Co Limerick, said the company had significantly increased the amount of its infant formula available by ramping up production.

In a statement, it said it was prioritising supplies to the US from plants in the Netherlands and Switzerland that had already been supplying the American market. But it added that it was examining other options for its network, which includes the Irish plant, following the US administration's latest move.

“Given the FDA announcement yesterday, which aims to give companies temporary flexibility with regard to the import of certain infant formulas, we are reviewing the guidance and assessing where we may be able to tap into the Nestlé global nutrition network to help,” the company said.

Danone's Irish plants in Macroom and Wexford have not, to date, supplied the US market because of stringent import controls. However, a spokeswoman said: "As the shortages persist, we are in discussions with the US government authorities to see how we can support them in addressing this critical need."