Now, instead of long trips every few days with uncertain results, they were able to reduce to one long trip once or twice a month. They no longer worry about being able to find formula – they just know they will have to travel to get it.
Experts who closely follow the state of the current infant formula shortage in the United States say stories like the Hankins’ are on point right now.
Plan availability hasn’t returned to normal, but for many families it’s better than a month or two ago.
Before a national infant formula recall by Abbott Nutrition in February and the subsequent closure of one of the company’s major manufacturing plants, about 10% of infant formula was generally out of stock, according to the company. market research Information Resources Inc., known as IRI. .
IRI’s latest report says around 20% of all types of infant formula were out of stock in the week ending July 24 – the lowest stockout rate since early June. Prices for powdered formula stocks have been slower to recover. IRI data shows about 30% of powdered formula was out of stock the week ending July 24.
“There’s no doubt that the situation where families go to the store and find absolutely no formula has improved a lot,” said Dr. Steve Abrams, a neonatologist at the University of Texas Dell Medical School in Austin. “On the other hand, there are still significant problems in the system.”
The commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration said last week that production of preparations must continue at high levels for another six to eight weeks for supply to meet demand.
Programs designed to help families affected by the shortage are also being extended.
In May, Abbott announced that in states where it held WIC contracts, it would cover the cost of switching babies to different brands through August 30 – a signal that it expected the shortage could affect consumers for months.
Families who depended on certain formulas have already had to pivot to find new ways to feed their babies, and they may still have to use different brands of formula, travel long distances to find them, and meet store purchase limits. .
The Hankins’ 9-month-old son, Orrin, is allergic to standard infant formula ingredients and needs a hypoallergenic variety. He had been on Similac Alimentum, which is made by Abbott. By June, they could no longer find it in stores.
They could order it online, but it was not covered by benefits from Virginia’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC. When they got it from retailers like Walmart.com, they had to pay out of pocket, an expense that strained the family’s budget.
So in July, Hankins worked with his state WIC program to switch his son to another brand of hypoallergenic formula called Gerber Good Start Extensive HA, which is flown into the United States from the Netherlands. It is one of many foreign brands sold in the United States since the shortage began.
Orrin had struggled with changing formulas in the past, but he did very well, Hankins said.
Still, the family travels about two hours round trip from their home in Prince George’s County to the stores carrying Orrin’s new formula. But Hankins said she can always find the right one.
On their last trip, they found it in the Kroger and Publix stores next door and bought the maximum allowed: four cans in one store and three cans in the other.
“We were able to use our WIC benefits for the month in one trip, which was great,” Hankins said. “If I only do this once or twice a month instead of every other day, it’s really such an improvement.”
Vulnerable families still hard hit
For families who can be flexible with the brands or types of formula they buy or how much they can afford to pay, the shortage has eased considerably. But for others, the pain continues.
Hypoallergenic, easy-to-digest formulas are still very rare, and Abrams said families who need them face challenges. Hospital dietitians are scrambling to track them down for families. As soon as they find a formula that a baby can tolerate, it may run out before it even arrives at the family home. Then the prescription and ordering process begins again.
Families dependent on WIC benefits also have more limited choices. Not all stores accept their benefits, and not all states have given families the option to purchase alternatives if their normal brand is out of stock.
Families in rural areas, who may only have one or two stores in their area that sell formula, may also consider long trips to find more if those stores are sold out.
“There’s a backlog that needs to be filled, but we’re seeing measurable improvement,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf said on NPR’s All Things Considered on Saturday. “There’s more formula on the shelves, and production is now significantly exceeding demand every week. So we’re on the road to recovery, but I don’t want anyone to think we’re sitting at this point. “
He said when consumers see empty slots on store shelves, it doesn’t mean that type of formula is entirely out of stock, but some sizes may be.
When formula manufacturers need to increase production, they reduce the number of products they make to speed up the process. “While they may have, say, made a 1-pound, 5-pound, and 10-pound pack, they can narrow it down to one type so they can be as efficient as possible in producing the formula,” Califf said. said.
The key now is to stay the course, he said.
“What we need is just to continue for the next six to eight weeks for production to far exceed the amount that people need for their babies, and then we’ll be back in shape as far as the volume of formula,” he said. said.
However, the country is not entirely out of the woods.
How much time left?
Abbott said in a statement Monday to CNN that it will “immediately” ship the Elecare formula made at its Michigan plant and that it is working to restart production of Similac “as soon as possible.”
Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center in Washington, said while the extension is good news, “it indicates that they think action is still needed.”
About half of infant formula purchased in the United States is purchased through the WIC program, and these families continue to be disproportionately affected by the shortage.
“The infant formula system crashed, but for WIC it really crashed,” Henchy said.
The USDA has new powers through the Access to Baby Formula Act, which was signed into law in May. The agency recently announced that it will require state WIC programs to develop contingency plans for future interruptions in formula supplies.
The government is also making funds available to state WIC programs to accelerate the development of online ordering programs, as WIC families are currently unable to use their benefits for online purchases.
Vicki Hankins says she feels like the hardest days of the shortage are behind her.
She started seeing her son’s old brand, Alimentum, in stores closer to home, which really helped ease her anxiety. She thinks that even if WIC stopped allowing her to use Gerber Good Start Extensive HA, she could go back to what she was using before.
She knows that not all families have been so lucky. She hears from other moms on social media who are still struggling.
Henchy puts it another way, “I think it was really traumatic for people.”