It is increasingly difficult for families across the United States to find infant formula, and the situation is so dire that even one of the best children’s hospitals in the country is struggling to stock up on infant formula. families in need.
“There are concerns on all levels,” Nicole Meadow, a clinical dietitian with the Heart Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, told Spectrum News. “Because we have families who call us multiple times a day, in terms of what they can get for their baby’s needs, we deal with all types of access issues.”
An existing shortage, blamed on supply chain issues and inflation, was exacerbated by the voluntary recall in February of Abbott Nutrition’s formula brands, including Similac’s PM 60/40 formula, Alimentum and EleCare powder formulas – all of which are designed for children with special dietary needs. According to an investigation notice from the Centers for Disease Control last updated in March, four children contracted an illness and two children died after drinking formula contaminated with a rare germ known as cronobacter sakazakii, which can cause sepsis or severe meningitis in infants.
According to the Associated Press, when the Food and Drug Administration visited Abbott’s plant in Sturgis, Michigan in March, inspectors found lax safety protocols and bacteria on several surfaces. However, none of the bacterial strains matched those collected from infants. The FDA and CDC investigation is ongoing. It is unclear when the Abbott plant will be able to reopen.
The shortage is hitting families hard at pharmacies and retailers. Two of the nation’s major pharmacies, CVS and Walgreens, have limited formula sales to three items per person — and even still, shelves are often empty for families looking to feed their babies. According to their websites, major retailers including Target, Walmart and other national supermarket chains are imposing restrictions on online ordering.
According to Datasembly, a company that collects real-time data from retailers across North America, 43% of the nation’s formula supply is out of stock by the first week of May. In April, more than half of retailers in three major metropolitan areas — Des Moines, Minneapolis and San Antonio — had out-of-stock rates above 50%, while seven states (Connecticut, Delaware, Montana, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington) had out-of-stock rates above 40%.
“Inflation, supply chain shortages and product recalls have led to unprecedented volatility for infant formula,” Datasembly CEO Ben Reich said in April. “We expect the infant formula category to be significantly impacted by these conditions. Infant formula inventory has been one of the most impacted categories so far in 2022, and one that will continue to show above-average stock-out levels.”
CVS and Walgreen, in separate statements to Spectrum News, said they were working with suppliers to meet increased supply. Neither provided a timeline for when they expect the shelves to be restocked.
On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the FDA was working with major formula makers to ensure they ramped up production and tried to streamline review of manufacturing changes and import entry process from foreign factories.
“It is not only their responsibility, in their view, to ensure that we meet our obligations to protect Americans. It is also their obligation to take steps to ensure that the supply can be met when they take these measures,” Psaki told reporters.
In a statement, Abbot Nutrition said it is “prioritizing the production of infant formula to replenish supply in the market,” while air-shipping formula daily from a factory registered with the FDA in Ireland. The company also said it is working on ready-to-use liquid formulas and working with healthcare providers to determine alternative formulas where possible.
Meadow said the CHLA team has not been given a date when more preparations will be available for the hospital. “It’s day-to-day, as more becomes available,” she said, noting that her hospital is working with suppliers and insurance companies to acquire formula. “We are waiting for answers to know when things will be a little better.”
“As a team, based on a doctor and a dietitian [input], we really work with each other to help families get what’s best for their needs,” Meadow said. As part of this, she suggested that families could, if necessary, swap formulas and brands of what they typically give their children to other FDA-approved formulas. (Although families should expect a little tummy ache — gas or other minor discomforts — during the transition.)
In the meantime, Meadow and the FDA urge parents to refrain from making their own formula, including using social media suggestions or archaic medical recommendations from decades past; that families do not buy online, especially from sources where they are not sure that the product is genuine or has been stored correctly; not to switch to solid foods or formulas designed for toddlers and urge parents not to try to stretch their reserves by diluting formulas.
“It’s really important — especially for small infants, but also for older babies — that if [families] don’t prepare formula properly, that they might have micronutrient deficiencies or calorie deficiencies and not grow properly,” Meadow said.
Instead, Meadow recommends parents call their children’s pediatrician, working with their family’s healthcare providers to find solutions.
“That’s what our patients do, and how we’re able to fill those gaps when they’re in a very precarious situation,” Meadow said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.