US baby formula crisis: What you need to know

Why is there an infant formula shortage in the US? Who is to blame? And when will parents see relief?

A six-month old baby rides in a stroller as his mother picks up free groceries and baby formula, amid continuing nationwide shortages in infant and toddler formula, at a food pantry run by La Colaborativa in Chelsea, Massachusetts, U.S
Six-month-old Ilan Ramos rides in a stroller as his mother picks up baby formula at a food pantry in Chelsea, Massachusetts, the United States, which is experiencing nationwide shortages in infant and toddler formula [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

Baby and toddler formula shortages across the United States are disproportionately hurting vulnerable infants and low-income families who do not have the resources to travel long distances or pay marked-up prices for critical nutrients.

And while the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said on Thursday that a shuttered infant formula factory – one largely responsible for the nationwide shortage – could resume operations as early as next week, store shelves may remain bare for weeks to come.

Major US pharmacies and retailers such as Target, Walmart, CVS and Walgreens have already restricted the amount of formula parents can buy, leaving many empty-handed.

Some parents, growing increasingly desperate to feed their little ones, have tried to dilute infant formula or make their own from scratch.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has warned against watering down baby formula and strongly advises against homemade recipes.

Paediatricians are also ringing the alarm that deficiencies stemming from loss of nutrition could be very serious and even catastrophic.

empty shelves at store
Empty shelves show a shortage of baby formula at a CVS store in San Antonio, Texas, the US [Kaylee Greenlee Beal/Reuters]

What exactly is causing this crisis? How could the wealthiest country in the world not have food for its youngest and most vulnerable? What is the administration of US President Joe Biden doing, if anything, to alleviate this pain? And most importantly, when will shelves get stocked again?

Here’s the short answer.

Why is there a baby formula shortage in the United States right now?

Well, there are several reasons. Mainly, it’s a major recall of formula by a top US producer, but the problem is also compounded by supply chain problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Also, 90 percent of formula production in the US is concentrated in the hands of four corporations: Abbott Nutrition, Reckitt Benckiser, Nestle USA and Perrigo.

What exactly prompted this crisis?

Back in February, Abbott Nutrition, which is the top producer of baby formula in the US, initiated a voluntary recall after four infants were hospitalised with bacterial infections and two of them died – after consuming baby formula manufactured at its Sturgis, Michigan factory. Production was halted and the factory shut down.

That’s just one factory – how does it spur a nationwide crisis?

Yes, it is just one factory, but it is the largest in the US and produces half of Abbott’s US supply.

What’s the situation looking like right now exactly?

The crisis is growing worse by the minute.

Forty-three percent of baby formula was out of stock at retailers nationwide the week ending May 8, according to data analysis firm Datasembly. Compare that to 30 percent in April.

And what about last year?

Baby formula stock was relatively OK for the first half of 2021, with out-of-stock fluctuation between 2 percent to 8 percent, Datasembly found.

Six month-old Jared Ramos watches as his mother receives free baby formula
Six-month-old Jared Ramos watches as his mother receives free baby formula, amid continuing nationwide shortages in infant and toddler formula, at a food pantry run by La Colaborativa in Chelsea, Massachusetts, the US [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

OK, so how are parents coping?

Some who have the means and ability are driving long distances in search of the critical nutrients formula and also paying marked-up prices.

But many struggling families are left without such options. In some states, Abbott is the only contractor for low-income families receiving benefits via the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC.

Is breastfeeding an option?

Breastfeeding is a personal choice and not always an option for everyone, for example moms with health conditions or limited breast milk supply. It is also not an option for adoptive parents, or babies with allergies. Moms who have to rush back to work after childbirth often are not able to breastfeed.

The US is the only high-income country in the world that does not guarantee paid maternity leave.

What is the Biden administration doing about the shortage?

After weeks of building pressure from his own party, Biden on Wednesday said he would invoke the Defense Production Act that would allow formula producers to have priority for ingredients, and to accelerate flying in formula from overseas suppliers.

OK, and what about US supplies?

The  FDA and Abbott Nutrition have reached a deal to restart operations at its factory in Sturgis, Michigan. But the FDA said that may take a week or two.

That’s great news. So, we can expect to see shelves stocked very soon?

Unfortunately, no.

Why not?

Once production resumes which may happen within the next two weeks, it would still take some two months before new formula hits stores, Abbott Nutrition has said.

Will anyone be held accountable for this?

On Thursday, the FDA commissioner did face bipartisan grilling from lawmakers.

But when asked why the FDA did not spring into action sooner and look at violations at the formula factory, the agency’s chief said he could not comment due to the ongoing nature of the investigation into the plant’s safety violations.

Anything to ensure this does not happen again?

That’s yet to be seen. House Democrats on Wednesday did pass a $28m spending bill that would boost FDA funding to inspect domestic and international formula producers. But the bill now moves to the evenly divided Senate, where its fate is uncertain.

OK, so while Washington DC is busy being Washington DC, what can desperate parents do?

The AAP has issued many guidelines and warnings. It also said that in a pinch, parents could feed babies who are not on specialised formulas and who are six months or older “whole cow’s milk for a brief period of time until the shortage is better”. But the guideline emphasises in bold, “This is not ideal and should not become routine.”

You can read more here.

Source: Al Jazeera