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Here’s what you need to know about baby formula shortage; rural families having harder time

The Rural Blog

Families nationwide are scrambling to find baby formula amid a widespread shortage. Rural families are likely having an even harder time since there are fewer local places to buy formula, and because families who use federal assistance can only buy certain formulas. It’s even more difficult to find certain medically necessary specialty formulas. Here’s what you—and your readers—need to know:

What happened: In February the Food and Drug

Administration ordered Abbott Nutrition, the nation’s leading formula maker, to shut down its plant in Sturgis, Michigan after four infants were hospitalized with bacterial infections from contaminated formula and two of them died.

The FDA issued a voluntary recall on three products (Similac, Alimentum, and EleCare) and warned customers not to use certain speciality formulas produced at the Sturgis facility, but the warning didn’t get much public attention so parents didn’t know to stock up ahead of the shortage. Formula was already low in stock since at least December 2021 because of inflation, supply-chain shortages and product recalls.
How bad is it?

Formula stockpiles in stores are 43% lower than normal, up from 30-40% in April, according to retail data tracker Datasembly. Only about a quarter of children are exclusively breastfed up to the age of six months, so most parents and caregivers depend at least partially on formula. 

Why not buy another brand of formula?

Almost all formula in the U.S. is manufactured domestically because of strict FDA standards, and only four companies make 90% of the nation’s supply. Abbott makes over 40% of the supply and Perrigo Nutritionals, Mead Johnson, Gerber (owned by Nestlé) account for another 50% of the supply. Perrigo makes store-brand formulas for stores such as Walmart, Kroger and Walgreens but that formula can’t be purchased by people using federal assistance through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

About 1.2 million WIC recipients purchase about half of all formula. In addition, many babies require specialty formulas and can become very sick if they switch to other formulas.

Why not breastfeed?

Many babies who require specialty formulas can also get sick from drinking breastmilk. Adoptive families and many others also have difficulty accessing or affording a reliable supply of breastmilk, and some survivors of sexual violence may find it traumatizing. Some mothers find it difficult to maintain a steady supply of milk, and others can’t breastfeed at all because they must take medications that would taint the milk. Though state and federal laws protect women’s right to breastfeed in public—including at work — many women are embarrassed, intimidated, or even discouraged from the practice, and many women are not knowledgeable about the health benefits of breast milk.

Is homemade baby formula a safe alternative?

No. Homemade formulas can be too high in sodium, too low in calcium, contaminated, and/or lack critical nutrients. Babies can suffer long-term damage after using homemade formula alternatives or straight cow’s milk for even a few days, according to the National Committee on Nutrition for the American Academy of Pediatrics. It’s also dangerous to dilute baby formula with too much water. If there is absolutely no other alternative, formula made for toddlers can be ok for a few days for infants who are close to a year of age.
How long could the shortage last?

At least 10 weeks. Abbott said in a statement this week that it can resume production within two weeks once the FDA approves it, and after that it will take six to eight weeks for formula to hit store shelves. However, inspectors say there are still problems at the plant so it’s unclear when production will start back up. In the meantime, Abbott says it’s shipping in formula from its FDA-registered plant in Ireland on a daily basis.

(Editor’s Note: The FDA is streamlining its review process to make it easier for foreign manufactures to begin shipping formula to the U.S., according to news reports. And it is near approval for the Abbott plant to re-open, pending overhaul of safety protocols and procedures. )

Could this have been prevented?

Growing evidence indicates the FDA failed to act quickly about warnings of safety violations at the Sturgis plant. A whistleblower at the plant warned the FDA in October about safety problems with the plant, weeks after the children were hospitalized with bacterial infections, but the FDA didn’t interview the whistleblower until December and didn’t inspect the plant until Jan. 31. That dovetails with a recent Politico investigation that revealed deep-seated issues with the FDA’s plant inspections. Current and former employees described the agency as slow to make decisions and without enough staff or budget for years to deal with the modern food system even as its regulatory responsibilities have grown.

What the government is doing now

The FDA is expediting and streamlining some of its approval processes to speed up production. The Biden administration and lawmakers from both parties are also urging the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to keep an eye out for price-gouging and increase formula imports to increase the domestic supply. The House Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing this week before introducing an emergency supplemental funding bill to help address the shortage.
What the administration is not doing

Some right-wing politicians and pundits have blamed the Biden administration for the shortage, but no single politician or administration is causing the problem. Biden has also been accused of stockpiling baby formula for undocumented immigrants being detained at the border while American families go without.

That’s not exactly true: the Biden administration is following the law in shipping a limited supply of formula to infants at the border, as the Trump administration did. 

In the meantime, if you need formula, here are some do’s and don’ts:

• Check with your church or local nonprofits to see if they have any.
• Shop online from reliable sources. 
• Don’t make your own.
• Don’t hoard formula.
• Network with other families on social media.

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