WASHINGTON — Parents across the U.S. are scrambling to find baby formula because supply disruptions and a massive safety recall have swept many leading brands off store shelves.
Months of spot shortages at pharmacies and supermarkets have been exacerbated by the recall at Abbott, which was forced to shutter its largest U.S. formula manufacturing plant in February due to contamination concerns. On Monday, Jenn Psaki, White House Press Secretary said that the Food and Drug Administration is “working round the clock” to resolve any shortages and would try to speed up imports of foreign formula in an effort to improve supply.
For now, pediatricians and health workers are urging parents who can’t find formula to contact food banks or doctor’s offices. They warn against watering down formula to stretch supplies or using online DIY recipes.
“This is what babies who have not been breastfed eat. Dr. Steven Abrams from the University of Texas in Austin said that formula should be safe for infants. “So it has to have all of their nutrition and, furthermore, it needs to be properly prepared so that it’s safe for the smallest infants.”
Laura Stewart, a 52-year-old mother of three who lives just north of Springfield, Missouri, has been struggling for several weeks to find formula for her 10-month-old daughter, Riley.
Riley usually gets an Abbott’s Similac brand for sensitive stomachs. Last month, she instead used four different brands.
“She spits up more. She’s just more cranky. Hughes stated that she is a happy girl. “When she has the right formula, she doesn’t spit up. She’s perfectly fine.”
A small can costs $17 to $18 and lasts three to five days, Stewart said. Hughes, like many Americans relies on WIC (a federal program that is similar to food stamps and serves both mothers and their children) to purchase formula for her child. Abbott’s recall wiped out many WIC-covered brands, though the program is now allowing substitutions.
Trying to keep formula in stock, retailers including CVS and Walgreens have begun limiting purchases to three containers per customer.
Nationwide about 40% of big box stores are out of stock, up from 31% in mid-April, according to Datasembly, a data analytics firm. More than half of U.S. states are seeing out-of-stock rates between 40% and 50%, according to the firm, which collects data from 11,000 locations.
Baby formulas are particularly susceptible to disruptions, as only a few companies make up almost all of the U.S. supply.
Industry executives say the constraints began last year as the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in ingredients, labor and transportation. Supplies were further squeezed by parents stockpiling during lockdowns.
In February Abbott recalls major brands and closes its Sturgis factory in Michigan after federal officials conclude that four infants contracted bacterial infections from formula they had ingested. Two infants were killed.
When FDA inspectors visited the plant in March they found lax safety protocols and traces of the bacteria on several surfaces. None of the bacterial strains matched those collected from the infants, however, and the FDA hasn’t offered an explanation for how the contamination occurred.
Abbott claims its formula is not the cause of the infection, but the FDA continues to investigate.
Infants with special formulas for food allergies or other medical conditions are particularly at risk.
“Unfortunately, many of those very specialized formulas are only made in the United States at the factory that had the recall, and that’s caused a huge problem for a relatively small number of infants,” Abrams said.
After hearing concerns from parents, the FDA said last month that Abbott could begin releasing some specialty formulas not affected by the recalls “on a case-by-case basis.” The company is providing them free of charge, in coordination with physicians and hospitals.
Food safety advocates say the FDA made the right call in releasing the formula, but that parents should talk to their pediatricians before using it.
“There’s still some risk from the formula because we know there are problems at the plant and FDA hasn’t identified a root cause,” said Sarah Sorscher of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “But it’s worth releasing because these infants might die without it.”
It’s unclear when the Abbott plant might reopen.
An FDA spokeswoman said the company is still working “to rectify findings related to the processes, procedures, and conditions.” The agency also is working with other manufacturers to consider options for increasing production.
Industry professionals say it will be hard to boost supply quickly, because the FDA requires extensive testing, labeling and inspections.
” It takes a lengthy and difficult process to bring new manufacturers into the country,” Ron Belldegrun (co-founder) of ByHeart, an American specialty formula manufacturer that launched its first product in recent months after four years of development.
Hollingsworth reported from Kansas City, Missouri.
Follow Matthew Perrone on Twitter: @AP_FDAwriter
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