For months, U.S. parents and caregivers have been contending with dwindling supplies of baby formula due to supply chain challenges and product recalls by a major manufacturer, Abbott Nutrition, at a Michigan based plant. The shortage has reached crisis levels in recent weeks, with the nationwide out-of-stock rate reaching 43 percent in April (compared to a shortage rate of 2 to 8 percent in the first half of 2021). As trusted sources of information, county leaders and county agencies can play a key role in helping families understand the current shortage, access safe sources of formula and avoid dangerous feeding practices.
BACKGROUND: THE INFANT FORMULA SHORTAGE
In February 2022, safety concerns prompted a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recall of products manufactured by Abbott Nutrition in Sturgis, Mich. and sold under the Similac, Alimentum and EleCare labels. The recall came amidst existing supply chain issues, and production remains halted at this plant – one of the biggest suppliers of infant formula nationally. Though other manufacturers claim to be producing at full capacity and making as much formula as they can, it is still not enough to meet demand. Retailers including CVS and Walgreens are limiting the number of formula cans that U.S. customers can buy per transaction, while Target has limited online purchases of the products.
Only 25 percent of infants in the U.S. are exclusively breastfed up to 6 months, meaning that the shortages are likely impacting many families with infants who supplement with formula. Especially worrisome is the supply of amino acid, or elemental formulas – a class of product that is an important (and sometimes only) source of nutrition for children and adults with special medical needs and is especially low in stock. Abbott is also the exclusive supplier for more than half the nation’s Special Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program agencies, through which more than 1.2 million low-income infants receive formula benefits.
HELPING COUNTY RESIDENTS ACCESS SAFE ALTERNATIVES
With parents worried and desperate for formula, there is a risk of individuals turning to unsafe solutions to feed their children. County leaders can work to prevent this danger by:
- Advising parents to consult with a pediatrician
- Connecting parents with a local foodbank, a local WIC agency, a local diaper bank or other community non-profits
- Connecting parents with resources on breastfeeding and breast milk donation banks
- Providing accurate information on safe introduction to solid foods
- Suggesting parents buy no more than a 10-day to 2-week supply of formula to help ease the shortage
EDUCATING COUNTY RESIDENTS ABOUT UNSAFE ALTERNATIVES
Additionally, it is critically important to educate parents against unsafe feeding practices. The American Academy of Pediatrics specifically advises against:
- Diluting formula to stretch supplies
- Using expired formula
- Using DIY recipes to make homemade formula
- Introducing dairy or plant-based milks too early
On May 12, the White House announced initial actions the administration is taking to address the shortage:
- Relaxing requirements within the WIC program: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is offering states greater flexibilities within the WIC program to allow participants to purchase a wider range of formula and relax stocking requirements for participating retailers. Active waivers by state can be found here.
- Cracking down on price gouging: The president is also urging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to monitor and investigate reports of illegal and predatory conduct among retailers and calling on suppliers to issue purchasing limits to help limit predatory behavior
- Increasing imports: The U.S. normally produces 98 percent of the infant formula it consumes. However, the FDA will soon announce specific new steps it is taking concerning importing certain infant formula products from abroad to boost supply
These measures follow a series of steps already initiated by the FDA, which include expediting certain review processes and allowing Abbott Nutrition to release product to individuals needing urgent, life-sustaining supplies of certain specialty and metabolic formulas on a case-by-case basis under the advisement of healthcare providers. House lawmakers also plan to hold hearings on the matter on May 25.
County officials and agencies can use official communications channels, social media, public meetings and other platforms to communicate this key information and help parents respond to the formula shortage. NACo will continue to monitor the situation and provide up-to-date resources to assist county governments in the response to this crisis.
- National WIC Association: Abbot Recall Messaging Toolkit
- American Academy of Pediatrics: With the baby formula shortage, what should I do if I can't find any?
- USDA: Keeping Infants Safe in Midst of Formula Shortages