WASHINGTON (AP) — Across the United States, parents are scrambling to find formula milk because supply disruptions and a massive safety recall have swept many big brands from store shelves.
Months of one-off shortages at pharmacies and supermarkets have been exacerbated by the recall at Abbott, which was forced to close its largest U.S. formula manufacturing plant in February due to contamination concerns.
On Monday, White House press secretary Jenn Psaki said the Food and Drug Administration was “work around the clock to deal with possible shortages” and will seek to expedite imports of foreign infant formula to increase supply.
For now, pediatricians and healthcare workers are urging parents who can’t find formula to contact food banks or doctors’ offices. They caution against diluting the formula to stretch supplies or using DIY recipes online.
“For babies who aren’t breastfed, it’s the only thing they eat,” said Dr Steven Abrams, of the University of Texas, Austin. “So it has to have all their nutrition, and furthermore, it has 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, Mo., has struggled for weeks to find formula for her 10-month-old daughter, Riley.
Riley normally gets a brand of Similac from Abbott designed for children with sensitive stomachs. Last month, she instead used four different brands.
“She spits more. She’s just grumpier. She is generally a very happy girl. said Hugh. “When she has the right formula, she does not spit. She is perfectly fine.
A small box costs $17 to $18 and lasts three to five days, Stewart said.
Like many Americans, Hughes relies on the WIC — a federal program similar to food stamps that serves mothers and children — to provide her daughter with formula. Abbott’s recall wiped out many WIC-covered brands, although the program now allows substitutions.
Trying to keep the formula in stock, retailers including CVS and Walgreens began 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 US states are experiencing stock-out rates between 40% and 50%, according to the company, which collects data from 11,000 locations.
Infant formula is particularly vulnerable to disruption, as only a handful of companies account for nearly all of the US supply.
Industry executives say the constraints began last year when the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in ingredients, labor and transportation. Supplies have been further reduced by parents who have stocked up during the closures.
Then, in February, Abbott recalled several major brands and closed its Sturgis, Michigan plant when federal officials concluded that four babies suffered from bacterial infections after consuming the facility’s formula. Two of the infants died.
When FDA inspectors visited the plant in March, they found lax safety protocols and traces of bacteria on several surfaces. However, none of the bacterial strains matched those collected from infants, and the FDA did not provide an explanation of how the contamination occurred.
For his part, Abbott clarifies his formula “is probably not the source of the infection”, although the FDA says its investigation is ongoing.
Shortages are especially dangerous for infants who need special formulas due to food allergies, digestive problems and other conditions.
“Unfortunately, many of these very specialized formulas are only made in the United States at the recalling plant, and this has caused a huge problem for a relatively small number of infants,” he said. added. Abrams said.
After hearing concerns from parents, the FDA said last month that Abbott may begin releasing certain specialty formulas unaffected by recalls. “case by case.” The company provides them free of charge, in coordination with doctors and hospitals.
Food safety advocates say the FDA made the right choice in releasing the formula, but parents should talk to their pediatricians before using it.
“There is still some risk with the formula because we know there are issues at the plant and the FDA has not identified a root cause,” said Sarah Sorscher of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “But it’s worth releasing because those infants might die without it.”
It’s unclear when the Abbott plant could reopen.
An FDA spokeswoman said the company is still working “to rectify findings related to processes, procedures and conditions.” The agency is also working with other manufacturers to consider options for increasing production.
Industry professionals say it will be difficult to increase supply quickly, as the FDA requires extensive testing, labeling and inspections.
“It’s a long and rigorous process to bring new manufacturers to this country,” said Ron Belldegrun, co-founder of ByHeart, a New York-based specialty formula maker that recently launched its first product after four years in development.
Hollingsworth reported from Kansas City, Missouri.
Follow Matthew Perrone on Twitter: @AP_FDAwriter
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.