Why the Baby Formula Shortage Continues in the US

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Baby formula, one of the most important items on grocery shelves, continues to be in short supply in many places in the US. Severe scarcity sent families across the country scrambling in May and June. Despite the restarting of the plant at the epicenter of the crisis and a government effort to fly in from abroad the equivalent of millions of bottles of formula, in many states, demand is still outstripping supply.

1. How bad is the shortage?

Nationwide, the in-stock figure — measuring the percentage of expected demand that suppliers have available for sale — was 72% for baby formula powder the week ending July 10, a slight improvement from 70% the week prior, according to data from IRI Worldwide. The figure was below 60% in only one state, Alaska, compared with five states the week ending July 3.

2. Why is there a shortage?

Long-term economic pressures collided with a sudden supply shock. The long-term issues stem from the pandemic, which disrupted supply chains of myriad products — including ingredients used in baby formula — and caused labor shortages that are vexing many industries. Then in February, after reports of bacterial infection in several babies, there were recalls of products made by Abbott Laboratories at its facility in Sturgis, Michigan, and the plant was shut down.

3. Which baby formulas were recalled?

Abbott recalled some Similac, EleCare and Alimentum formulas produced at its Sturgis facility. Later, the US Food and Drug Administration announced the recall of Similac PM 60/40, Abbott’s specialized low-mineral baby formula. The recalls were connected to the cases of four babies who consumed formula made at the Sturgis plant and were infected with cronobacter, two of whom died, although subsequent complaints have been made and several lawsuits have been filed. Abbott has said its products are not to blame for the illnesses and deaths.

4. What is the status of the Sturgis plant?

After reaching a deal with regulators to reopen the facility, Abbott restarted operations in June. But two weeks later, the plant closed again, this time because of flooding amid heavy storms. It reopened a second time on July 1. The company had said earlier that it would take six to eight weeks from a reopening for products to reach shelves.

5. What’s the government done to ease the shortage?

Until the crisis, a combination of tariffs and FDA regulation had largely shut out foreign manufacturers of baby formula from the US market. When the shortage became acute, the agency temporarily eased its rules to allow the government to import supplies from abroad in a program called Operation Fly Formula. Now, the FDA intends to provide a pathway for foreign companies to continue to supply the US after the shortage has eased, to make the supply chain — now dominated by just a handful of companies — more robust. In addition, the White House invoked the Defense Production Act, which grants broad authority to the executive branch to intervene in private industry in urgent situations. In this case, US formula makers are able to cut the line to receive materials they need from suppliers such as sugar, corn and oils.

6. Who is most affected by the shortages?

Low-income people are particularly struggling. Without much cash on hand, some families weren’t able to build up a stockpile and have faced price gouging from secondary sellers or have had to pay for shipping from online retailers. In many states, Abbott Nutrition is the sole contractor for low-income families who get benefits through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC. That means parents shopping for formula have to take the extra step of contacting their local WIC office for alternatives or pay out of their own pockets.

7. Where can you find formula?

Families can contact their pediatricians, who may have samples or some supplies. Parents can also check smaller retailers, like convenience stores or pharmacies that may have stock. Community resources like a local food pantry, milk bank or other non-profits may have access to supply. It’s safe for most infants to swap to a different commercial brand, including a generic one, according to guidelines on navigating the shortage from the American Academy of Pediatrics. You should not make your own formula using a recipe found online or elsewhere, according to the FDA and the AAP. Homemade formulas can be dangerous, leading to contamination and hypocalcemia, or low calcium, the FDA says. Doctors also advise against diluting formula to stretch it out. It can create nutritional imbalances and serious health problems, the AAP says. For babies older than 6 months, cow’s milk is an option “for a brief period of time,” but the AAP cautions it “should not become routine” due to concerns infants won’t get enough iron.

8. Is breast-feeding the option?

For some people, of course. But formula is widely in demand by all sorts of people, including adoptive parents and moms with certain health conditions or limited breast milk supply. By six months, only a quarter of babies in the US are exclusively breastfed, according to CDC data. About 20% of breastfed infants were supplemented with infant formula in their first two days of life, according to the CDC. Relactating — the process of starting to breastfeed again after a gap — can be time-consuming and isn’t always successful. Research shows that a lack of workplace resources, like a dedicated pumping space or enough breaks, can make a parent quit nursing earlier. The US is the only high-income country that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave, meaning many moms are back to work soon after having a baby, leaving them little time to acclimate to nursing.

• Blame bad policy and red tape for the shortage, a Bloomberg Opinion editorial says.

• The White House outlines government steps to address the shortage.

• The New York Times delves into the emotionally charged issue of breastfeeding.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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