Here’s what you need to know about the baby formula shortage

By Heather Chapman
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Families nationwide are scrambling to find baby formula amid a widespread shortage. Rural families are likely having an even harder time since there are fewer local places to buy formula, and because families who use federal assistance can only buy certain formulas. It’s even more difficult to find certain medically necessary specialty formulas. Here’s what you need to know:

What happened: In February the Food and Drug Administration ordered Abbott Nutrition, the nation’s leading formula maker, to shut down its plant in Sturgis, Michigan, after four infants were hospitalized with bacterial infections from contaminated formula and two of them died. The FDA issued a voluntary recall on three products (Similac, Alimentum, and EleCare) and warned customers not to use certain specialty formulas produced at the facility, but the warning didn’t get much public attention, so parents didn’t know to stock up. Formula was already low in stock since at least December because of inflation, supply-chain shortages and product recalls.

How bad is it? Formula stockpiles in stores are 43 percent lower than normal, compared to 30-40% short in April, says retail data tracker Datasembly. Only about a quarter of children are exclusively breast-fed up to the age of six months, so most parents and caregivers depend at least partially on formula.

Why not buy another brand? Almost all formula in the U.S. is manufactured domestically because of strict FDA standards, and 90% of the nation’s supply comes from four companies. Abbott makes over 40% and Perrigo NutritionalsMead JohnsonGerber (owned by Nestlé) combined account for another 50%. Perrigo makes store-brand formulas for stores such as WalmartKroger and Walgreens formula can’t be purchased by people using federal assistance through the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, which pays for about half of all formula. In addition, many babies require specialty formulas and can become very sick if they switch.

Why not breastfeed? Many babies who require specialty formulas can also get sick from drinking breast milk. Adoptive families and many others also have difficulty accessing or affording a reliable supply of breast milk, and some survivors of sexual violence may find it traumatizing. Some mothers find it difficult to maintain a steady supply of milk, and others can’t breastfeed at all because they must take medications that would taint the milk. Though state and federal laws protect women’s right to breastfeed in public—including at work—many women are embarrassed, intimidated, or even discouraged from the practice, and many women are not knowledgeable about the health benefits of breast milk.

Is homemade baby formula a safe alternative? No. Homemade formulas can be too high in sodium, too low in calcium, contaminated, and/or lack critical nutrients. Babies can suffer long-term damage after using homemade formula alternatives or straight cow’s milk for even a few days, according to the National Committee on Nutrition for the American Academy of Pediatrics. It’s also dangerous to dilute baby formula with too much water. If there is absolutely no other alternative, formula made for toddlers can be ok for a few days for infants who are close to a year of age.

How long could the shortage last? At least 10 weeks. On Monday the FDA agreed to allow Abbott to reopen its Sturgis plant within two weeks, as long as it passes a safety inspection. After that it will take six to eight weeks for formula to hit store shelves. However, inspectors say there are still problems at the plant. In the meantime, Abbott says it’s shipping in formula from its FDA-registered plant in Ireland on a daily basis. The FDA has been allowing more formula imports meant for the U.S. since February, and is now allowing some formula meant for foreign markets to enter the U.S., but only after a safety evaluation.

Could this have been prevented? Growing evidence indicates the FDA failed to act quickly about warnings of safety violations at the Sturgis plant. A whistleblower at the plant warned the FDA in October about safety problems, weeks after the children were hospitalized with bacterial infections, but the agency didn’t interview the whistleblower until December and didn’t inspect the plant until Jan. 31. That dovetails with a recent Poitico investigation that revealed deep-seated issues with the FDA’s plant inspections. Current and former employees described the agency as slow to make decisions and lacking enough staff or budget for years to deal with the modern food system even as its regulatory responsibilities have grown.
What is happening in Kentucky? “The state WIC Program quickly requested and began to execute all waivers available to the states as soon as the USDA provided for them. However, that has only been a small part of their response,” said Susan Dunlap, spokeswoman for the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services. “They have worked to develop additional infant formula packages in the WIC system and have updated the approved product list to now include a substantial number of additional products in a variety of sizes. All of this was aimed at ensuring WIC families were able to use their benefits to access whatever formula was available on the shelves.”
Also, local health departments are being updated and supported, and the state is pushing updates to WIC families via the WIC Shopper App, Dunlap said. “They have been in constant contact with Abbott about reports of regional supply deficiencies so Abbott can work to shift supply to harder hit areas of the state,” she said. “However, the supply chain demand and disruption is affecting nearly all families that use infant formula.”
In the meantime, if you need formula, here are some do’s and don’ts:
  • Check with your church or local nonprofits to see if they have any.
  • Shop online from reliable sources.
  • Don’t make your own.
  • Don’t hoard formula.
  • Network with other families on social media.
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