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Empty shelves and hungry kids: The U.S. baby formula shortage is a crisis

And it’s getting worse.

Congress has also vowed to put oversight pressure on the industry. House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro said it will look into the “FDA’s delayed response” to the formula contamination case that contributed to the shortage and “led to at least four hospitalizations and deaths of at least two babies.”

Meanwhile, new parents across the U.S. are panicking as grocery store shelves sit empty for weeks at a time and online site supplies are backordered.

Esther Lee, a mother based in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, had been using a specific brand of formula that worked well with her 10-month-old son Ervin’s digestive system. Lee noticed a few months ago that supplies on the grocery store shelves were dwindling, but in April, the formula Ervin uses — along with all the others — had disappeared.

Several shelves of baby formula are nearly empty at a Walmart in Charles Town, West Virginia, on April 28.

Some parents are seeking out alternative options, but not all of them are safe, and not all online sellers are offering legitimate products. Parents faced with inadequate — or no — options are pretty much at the end of their rope.

How it started

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are three main types of infant formula: cow milk protein-based formulas, soy-based formulas and protein hydrolysate formulas. But the product itself is a bit more complicated than that.

“Infant formula is just that — a formula,” Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, told Grid. “It’s a complex combination of ingredients. And when that balance is off, it can lead to both immediate and long-term consequences to the infant.”

Dr. Steven Abrams, a pediatrician and former chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Nutrition, told Grid those factors together “just caused a collapse.”

For starters, there are only a few manufacturers producing formula, and three of the most popular formula brands in the U.S. — Similac, Alimentum and Elecare — were recalled in February after four infants fell ill after drinking the products. Three of the infants were infected with Cronobacter sakazkii, a bacterium that can damage membranes protecting the brain and spine, and the fourth contracted salmonella.

Bacteria found in the products was later traced back to a manufacturing facility in Sturgis, Michigan, run by Abbott Nutrition, one of the largest baby food manufacturers in the country. “Basically, you have one plant that’s gone offline, and it’s created headaches for millions of parents across the country,” Dittmeier said.

“This is not a supply chain shortage in the way that we’ve seen in other food groups during covid-19,” Dittmeier said. “This is really the direct result of [the] product recall.”

Dr. Herschel Lessin, a pediatrician at the Children’s Medical Group in upstate New York, believes the shortage was also exacerbated by consumers. “What’s happening is that people who give their kids Similac are panic-buying it just like they did toilet paper and paper towels at the start of covid,” he told Grid.

“Ensuring the availability of these products is also a priority for the FDA, and they are working around the clock to address any possible shortage,” she said.

Who it affects

The majority of babies in the U.S. use formula at least at some point, said Abrams. One in 5 babies relies on formula for their source of nutrition at birth, and it becomes the primary source for many others after initially breastfeeding.

“About 80 percent of babies in the United States will breastfeed initially after the baby’s born,” Abrams said, “but that number drops drastically over time, to the point where the majority of infants will get some formula before they hit a year of age.”

“More than 1.2 million infants receive formula benefits through WIC, and Abbott is the exclusive supplier for more than half of the WIC agencies nationwide,” Dittmeier said in a statement provided to Grid. “This is not an isolated issue — it impacts millions of new parents across the country.”

What parents should do

Lessin suggests parents explore alternative options, like store-brand formula if their baby’s brand isn’t available.

“It pretty well meets all the standards that the name-brand formula meets,” he told Grid. “All FDA-approved formulas made for full-term infants are nutritionally adequate from birth through 1 year.”

A sign warns customers to limit baby formula purchases due to shortages at a Walmart in Charles Town, West Virginia, on April 28.

That is if you can find any, said Lee, and if it works for your baby. Ervin suffered from painful stomach issues after Lee supplemented his usual formula with the generic brand.

“I had a small amount of generic formula and finally gave it to him even though it has messed with his system in the past,” she said. “He had bloating, but there is nothing else I could do. I could only rub his tummy and say, ‘I am so sorry.’”

Lee said she has had some luck on social media connecting with other parents in her situation. She even created a Facebook page where parents could exchange information on where to find specific formulas.

… and not do

The shortage has forced new parents to either visit multiple stores to find the product or try to make formula at home. Doctors strongly advise against the latter.

“Most of the do-it-yourself formula recipes can be dangerous and tricky and not reliable,” Lessin said. “So, you should most definitely not make your own baby formula.” A faulty baby formula recipe can lead to deficiency, overdoses and acquiring too much of one electrolyte and not enough of another, he said.

Some parents have taken to buying infant formula from others online through forums like Facebook Marketplace, but there’s no guarantee that the product buyers receive is FDA-approved.

“Generally, I want to emphasize not using homemade formulas, not changing the way the formula was supposed to be mixed, not hoarding formulas,” Abrams said, “and just being as flexible as you possibly can.”

Just plain frustrated

For Lee, finding formula has been a stressful, absurd endeavor. She’s not only frustrated, she told Grid, but just plain angry. “It made me so mad on behalf of Ervin … and on behalf of moms everywhere,” she told Grid. She added that she’s one of the lucky ones because she was able to find (and afford) a case of the formula she needed to stock up. That supply should get her son to the point where he’s eating mainly solids.

Lee said when she finally received the last order of formula Ervin will need, she was overcome with emotion: “You have no idea the sigh of relief I let out. I didn’t sob, but I was so close to sobbing.”

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