By Richa Naidu and Lisa Baertlein

LONDON/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Aptamil maker Danone SA has stepped up shipments of infant formula from Europe to the United States, according to U.S. customs data and shipping consultancy Ocean Audit, which analyzed ocean cargo data exclusively for Reuters.

Danone, the world’s second biggest baby formula maker but a relatively small player in the U.S. market, shipped much of the product from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands by ocean freight through its Nutricia North America arm after a Feb. 17 recall by top manufacturer Abbott Laboratories touched off the U.S. shortage.

Between January and May, Danone’s Nutricia division more than tripled its ocean imports to North America, and more than 90% was delivered to the United States, Ocean Audit CEO Steve Ferreira said.

Abbott recalled dozens of types of its Similac, Alimentum and EleCare formulas, creating one of the most urgent food shortages in recent history for American families.

“We understand how important it is for families to access these specialized formulas which is why our absolute priority has been to increase production and supply of these medical formulas to serve the most vulnerable babies since the shortages arose in February,” a Danone spokesperson said.

On May 10, three days before U.S. President Joe Biden took to the airwaves with his plan for addressing the nation’s baby formula shortage, the Independent Quest sailed into the Port of Philadelphia to deliver 42,000 cans of Danone formula.

It was rapidly dispatched to Jeffersonville, Indiana to be distributed to retailers that for weeks had to limit how much infant formula mothers could buy.

“If it comes into the port on a Monday, I’m almost certain that they would have it out by Tuesday or Wednesday because the product’s so hot,” Ferreira said.

Ferreira said his data showed that from Jan. 1 to May 1 2021 Danone Nutricia sent nearly 770,000 cans of infant formula, filling roughly 100 cargo containers, to the North America. During the comparable period this year, the number skyrocketed to more than 2.4 million cans, he said.

Of that product, 93% went to East Coast U.S. ports, while 7% went to ocean gateways in Mexico, Ferreira said.

Separate U.S. customs data analyzed by Reuters shows that on Feb. 22, five days after the Abbott recall, nearly 38,000 kilograms (83,775.66 pounds) of Danone Nutricia cargo arrived in the United States from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The customs data did not specify the exact nature of the cargo, but described some of it as “clinical nutrition powder” and “medical nutrition”. On March 9, roughly 34,000 kilograms more cargo arrived, followed by nearly 30,000 kilograms on March 30.

Reuters could not obtain records confirming Danone’s airborne baby formula imports.

(Reporting by Richa Naidu in London and Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles.)