Shortage of baby formula cans across the US

Parents across the United States struggle to find baby milk formula, as problems in supply chains, coupled with a mass recall of these products for safety reasons, they have driven many of the major brands off the shelves.

After months of shortage in pharmacies and supermarkets, the shortage was aggravated by the withdrawal of these products by Abbott, which in February was forced to close its largest production plant of formula milk in the United States for pollution reasons.

On Monday, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said the Food and Drug Administration (FDA, for its acronym in English) was working around the clock to deal with any possible shortages, and that it would try to expedite imports of foreign infant formula to increase supply.

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For now, pediatricians and health care workers recommend that parents who can’t find formula milk contact food banks or doctor’s offices.

For babies who are not breastfed, formula is their only food,” explains Dr. Steven Abrams of the University of Texas at Austin. “So they have to contain all the nutrients and also be well prepared so that they are safe for the smallest babies.”

Laura Stewart, a 52-year-old mother of three who lives north of Springfield, Missouri, has been struggling for several weeks to find formula milk for her 10-month-old daughter, Riley.

Riley usually takes a variety of the product Abbott’s Similac designed for children with sensitive stomachs. Last month he had to use four different brands.

“Regurgitate more. He is more irritable. She is usually a very happy girl,” Stewart said. “When she has the right formula, she doesn’t spit up. She is perfectly fine.”

A small can costs between 17 and 18 dollars, and lasts three to five days, says Stewart.

Like many Americans, Stewart relies on WIC — a federal program similar to food stamps for mothers and children — to pay for her daughter’s formula. Abbott’s recall eliminated many brands covered by WIC, though the program now allows substitutes.

In an attempt not to run out of formulas, stores like CVS and Walgreens have started limiting purchases to three cans per customer.

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According to Datasembly, a data analytics company, across the country the 40% of large stores are out of stock, compared to 31% in mid-April. More than half of US states have out-of-stock rates between 40% and 50%, according to Datasembly, which collects data from 11,000 stores.

milk formula it is particularly vulnerable to shortages because only a handful of companies supply nearly all of America’s supplies.

Sector executives point out that the reduction in supply began last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused alterations in the supply of ingredients, in the workforce and in transportation. Supplies dwindled further as parents built up reserves during lockdowns.

Then in February Abbott retired several major brands and closed its factory in Sturgis, Michigan, after federal officials concluded that four infants suffered bacterial infections after consuming formula from the facility. Two of the infants died.

When FDA inspectors visited the plant in March, they found lax safety protocols and traces of the bacteria on various surfaces. However, none of the bacterial strains matched those taken from infants and the FDA has not explained how it happened pollution.

For its part, Abbott says its formula is “probably not the source of infection,” though the FDA said the investigation is ongoing.

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The shortage is particularly dangerous for infants who require special formulas due to food allergies, digestive problems and other ailments.

Unfortunately, many of these very specialized formulas are only produced in the United States at the factory that had the recall, and that has caused a huge problem for a relatively small number of infants,” Abrams said.

After listening to parents’ concerns, the FDA said last month that Abbott could start supplying some special formulas unaffected by “individual case” recalls. The company offers them free of charge, in coordination with doctors and hospitals.

Food safety advocates say the FDA made the right decision to release the formula, but parents should talk to their pediatricians before using it.

There is still some risk in the formula because we know there are problems in the plant and the FDA has not identified a source,” said Sarah Sorscher of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “But it’s worth releasing because these infants could die without it.”

It’s unclear when the Abbott plant will reopen.

An FDA spokeswoman indicated that the company is still working to “rectify process-related findings, procedures and conditions. The agency is also working with other growers to consider options to increase production.

Industry professionals say it will be difficult to ramp up supplies quickly because the FDA requires extensive and expensive testing, labeling and inspection.

It is a long and rigorous process to bring new producers to this country,” said Ron Belldegrun, co-founder of ByHeart, a New York-based formula producer that recently launched its first product after four years of development.

(With information from AP).

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