For the past few months, a nationwide baby-formula shortage has had major retailers rationing their supplies. The scarcity, initially the result of supply-chain issues and labor shortages, intensified after baby-food manufacturer Abbott Nutrition shut down its production plant in Sturgis, Michigan, and voluntarily recalled three of its infant formulas following reports of bacterial infections and at least two infant deaths. Now there may finally be some relief in sight: On June 15, the Biden administration announced that it was facilitating the shipment of over 44,000 pounds of Nestlé infant formula from Switzerland.
The shipment is part of “Operation Fly Formula,” the federal government’s effort to address the formula shortage through foreign imports, and according to the White House it “will be available through a distribution pipeline serving hospitals, home health companies, and WIC programs around the U.S.” This comes on the heels of Abbott’s official announcement that it had resumed production of EleCare and other specialty formulas just a few weeks ago. “We understand the urgent need for formula and our top priority is getting high-quality, safe formula into the hands of families across America,” Abbott said in a statement.
Experts have said they expect the shortage to ease by the end of July. “It’s going to be gradual improvement up to probably somewhere around two months until the shelves are replete again,” FDA commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf said in a Senate testimony from May.
Per CNN, other manufacturers claim to be producing formula at full capacity, but it’s still not enough to meet demand. In addition to stores like CVS and Walgreens limiting formula purchases, the Times reports that private online sellers have been gouging prices. According to Datasembly, national out-of-stock rates exceeded 70 percent during the week of May 28.
Formula shortages put a strain on caregivers, particularly mothers for whom breastfeeding isn’t possible, whether due to issues with milk supply, medical reasons, a lack of support services, or work demands. The shortages also pose a threat to the health of infants, including those who rely on specialty formulas because of allergies or other medical complications. “Unlike other food recalls, shortages in the infant-formula supply affects a major — or even exclusive — source of nutrition for babies,” said Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, a nonprofit that works to provide supplemental nutrition to women and children across the country. While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed until six months of age, the latest numbers from the CDC indicates that’s only a reality for roughly a quarter of babies. What’s more, nearly 20 percent of infants receive formula supplementation during the first two days of life. According to the New York Times, some parents have responded to the shortage by stockpiling formula or making their own formula at home, a risky method that can lead to nutritional deficiencies and other severe health complications.
The FDA, which has been leading the federal response to the shortage — including encouraging retailers to ration formula — made a statement on May 10 recognizing the frustrations of consumers, adding that they are “doing everything in our power to ensure there is adequate product available where and when they need it.” During a press briefing, the White House announced additional measures to address the shortage, including encouraging manufacturers to expedite production, cracking down on price gouging, and increasing formula imports from abroad.
For now, parents are still met with empty shelves, and some are reportedly driving long distances to try and find more. The shortage has been especially hard on families with babies who require specialty formulas because of allergies or medical issues. The Times reports that at least two children in Tennessee with short bowel syndrome — where the body does not absorb sufficient nutrients from food — were recently hospitalized after their families could not find EleCare and tried alternative formulas, which the children didn’t respond well to. “Each day that this crisis continues, parents grow more anxious and desperate to find what they need to feed their infants,” Dittmeier told the Times.
This post has been updated with additional information.