EXPLAINER: What’s Behind the Baby Formula Shortage?

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A sign is posted at a CVS pharmacy indicating a shortage in the availability of baby food Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. Parents in much of the U.S. are scrambling to find baby formula after a combination of supply disruptions and safety recalls have swept many of the leading brands from store shelves. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

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Many parents are hunting for infant formula after a combination of short- and long-term problems hit most of the biggest U.S. brands.

Millions of babies in the U.S. rely on formula, which is the only source of nutrition recommended for infants who aren’t exclusively breastfed.

Here’s a look at what’s behind the problem and what parents can do:

WHY IS THERE A SHORTAGE?

Ongoing supply disruptions have combined with a recent safety recall to squeeze supplies.

The problems began last year as the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in labor, transportation and raw materials — economy-wide issues that didn’t spare the formula industry. Inventory was further squeezed by parents stockpiling during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Then in February, Abbott Nutrition recalled several major brands of powdered formula and shut down its Sturgis, Michigan, factory when federal officials began investigating four babies who suffered bacterial infections after consuming formula from the facility.

Abbott is one of only a handful of companies that produce the vast majority of the U.S. formula supply, so their recall wiped out a large segment of the market.

WHAT IS IN BABY FORMULA?

Most formulas are made from protein from cow’s milk that’s been altered to be easier to digest and enhanced with extra nutrients needed for growth and development. The Food and Drug Administration sets specific nutritional requirements, including minimum amounts of protein, fat, calcium and a number of vitamins. Formula makers achieve those levels by adding various sugars, oils and minerals.

The formulas are designed to mimic breast milk, though studies have repeatedly shown better health outcomes for babies who are breastfed.

WHY CAN’T ALL MOTHERS RELY ON BREAST MILK?

Health professionals recommend exclusively breastfeeding babies until they are 6 months old. But federal figures show that only 1 in 4 are relying solely on breast milk at that age.

Mothers face a number of challenges to long-term breastfeeding, including returning to work and finding the time and equipment needed to pump breast milk. About 60% of mothers stop breastfeeding sooner than they had planned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

State and federal laws have been enacted to encourage breastfeeding by requiring break time and accommodations for mothers of infants.

Rates of breastfeeding have consistently been lower among Black babies than other groups. About three quarters of Black babies are breast fed in infancy, below the national average of 84%, according to the CDC.

WHAT SHOULD PARENTS DO IF THEY ARE HAVING TROUBLE FINDING FORMULA?

Talk with your pediatrician or call a local food bank to see if they can help locate some options. Experts also recommend checking with smaller stores and pharmacies, which may still have supplies when larger stores run out.

Most regular baby formulas contain the same basic ingredients and nutrients, so parents shouldn’t hesitate to buy a different brand if they’re having trouble finding their regular one.

Some infants require specialty formulas due to allergies, digestive problems and other medical conditions. Parents should talk to their doctor if they can’t find those products, which manufacturers usually distribute through pharmacies and clinics.

Families that qualify for WIC — a federal program similar to food stamps that serves mothers and children — can also contact their local agency.

Health officials also warn against buying formula via social media websites or outside of conventional retailers because they could be counterfeit.

WHY ARE PARENTS TOLD NOT TO USE MAKE-YOUR-OWN FORMULA RECIPES ONLINE?

Many do-it-yourself formula recipes are made from cow’s milk and granular sugar that may be difficult for young babies to digest. They also lack the specific vitamins and proteins found in breastmilk and FDA-approved formulas that are needed for basic nutrition.

“Particularly for small babies, many of these formulas and mixtures that are found online don’t contain even the most basic nutrient mixes that babies need to survive,” said Dr. Steven Abrams, a pediatrician at the University of Texas, Austin.

Abrams also stressed that parents should never dilute infant formula.

WHEN ARE SUPPLIES LIKELY TO IMPROVE?

Health regulators recently announced several steps designed to boost supply, including allowing faster importation of formula made overseas.

The FDA is working with Abbott to fix the violations that triggered the shutdown of its Michigan plant, which produces Similac, EleCare and several other leading powdered formulas.

The Chicago-based company said this week that, pending FDA approval, it could restart manufacturing at its plant within two weeks. After that it would take another six to eight weeks before new products hit store shelves.

The company says its products have not been directly linked to the bacterial infections in children, pointing out that genetic samples collected from its factory did not match those found in several infants who got sick.

But even then, experts caution that many of the industrywide issues will continue to restrain supplies.

“This is going to be a problem and it’s not going away for at least a period of several months,” Abrams said.

(AP)


10 COMMENTS

  1. That doesn’t explain the following two headlines today:

    1) Stockpiles of Baby Formula Sent to Ukraine; and
    2) Illegal Migrants Get Pallets of Baby Formula.

    Why are we shipping it out instead of giving it to American mothers, and why are the illegals getting it before American citizens? I think this Administration has a lot of explaining to do.

  2. I hope new moms are paying attention
    If they breastfeed they will not ever have to worry about their babies starving
    I’m seeing way to many young moms- (many whom are NOT working)
    And simply think breastfeeding is gross, strangely enough , or can’t be inconvenienced to nurse their babies because they find it annoying
    Nothing on earth compares to mothers milk
    It is liquid gold, it has exactly what babies need and most babies tolerate moms milk far better than artificial junk made of cows milk and corn syrup

  3. “This is going to be a problem and it’s not going away for at least a period of several months,” i.e. until the long awaited midterm elections, when this crisis caused by sleepy joe shall bring an even bigger red tsunami

  4. Sairray, I know you think Nursed is best, and it usually is, fed is actually best. As a woman who never produced enough milk and had to supplement (which is probably the hardest way of doing things), feeling like an insufficient mother, and dealing with random strangers judging me for using formula to feed my baby, know that your comments are unsupported by every pediatrician/ nursing consultant I spoke to.
    Most woman stop nursing because they can’t produce enough when they go back to work or because they have a real reason they can’t.
    Also, a lot of babies refuse to nurse when their mother is expecting because the hormones change the taste of the milk. And a lot of frum mothers don’t wait 6 months to get pregnant again.
    Lastly, for babies who lactation is not an option/ enough, formula is a godsend and literally saves lives.

  5. La Leche League is glaringly absent in this article. A follow up after contacting LaLeche organization is recommended. All new Mothers should get a consult.
    Some Mothers dont nurse due to social pressures from family members. Sad but true. La Leche can help.

  6. There are many product shortages. It is unlikely that what caused a shortage of baby formula is any different from what is causing all the others. One factory having a problem wouldn’t cause widespread shortages, and the problem seems to be the difficulty getting the product to the stores rather than a real shortage. The most likely problem is a shortage of workers in production and business logistics, which is due to a shrinking workforce, which will be compounded by manpower requirements of a military buildup for what at best will be a return to “Cold War” conditions. The only ways to get more workers is to “grow” them (which takes 20+ years, and in any event pro-natalist policies seem hard to implement – people don’t really care what the government says when it comes to having children), or to import them (immigration, which runs into widespread political objections, in part since labor shortages produce higher wages).

  7. Babies can drink a homemade milk formula like they used to before commercial formulas were produced. They can also drink goats milk which is supposed to be healthier than cows milk and more digestible, probably better than commercial formulas.