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Formula shortage worsens as parents begin to panic

Infant eats from bottle
Wesley Reimer feeds his son from a bottle in their Macon, Georgia home. Despite Abbott, the country’s largest supplier of baby formula, preparing to ramp up production again, the nationwide shortage still is making it difficult for some parents and guardians to feed their children. (Photo: Grant Blankenship / Georgia Public Broadcasting)

Parents and guardians in Virginia, and across the country, say they’re beginning to panic due to the national shortage of baby formula. And some are already taking drastic measures to feed their babies.

Danni Pannell’s daughter, Daisy, is about a year old. She’s not entirely dependent on baby formula anymore, but it’s still a critical part of her diet as she transitions to solid foods. But even with the ability to supplement baby formula with other sources of nutrition, Pannell said she’s become increasingly worried that Daisy’s next bottle of formula will be her last.

“We check for formula every time we go to the store, and most of the time you're greeted with an entirely empty aisle because everyone's either already gotten it or they just never got it this week,” said Pannell, who lives in Richmond. “It's really hard to not get hopeless over the whole situation. Because it kind of runs into a thing of, will I be able to feed my baby tonight?”

The current baby formula shortage began with supply chain issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. That crisis was compounded in February when several products from the country’s largest baby formula producer were recalled. Those factors, combined with high taxes on baby formula imports in the U.S., have created a crisis among parents and guardians of young children.

Norfolk’s Phil Hernandez is also frustrated with the shortage and scared for his daughter’s health. One-year-old Iva still needs some baby formula in her diet to fully develop, and her parents said they’re running out of options.

“There's no worse feeling as a parent than not being able to provide your kid what they need,” Hernandez said.

In early May, the retail technology firm Datasembly reported that 43% of baby formula products in the U.S. were out of stock. Unable to find formula in stores or online, some parents are watering down their bottles or making formula at home. Both of those practices are dangerous, according to pediatric nutrition experts like Carolyn Kusenda at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk.

“We advise families not to dilute formula to make it last longer, because that can be harmful and lead to your infant getting sick or requiring a hospitalization,” Kusenda said. “The use of cow's milk and goat's milk for infants less than one year of age is not recommended. And certainly while there are recipes available on social media for homemade formulas, we don't recommend the use of homemade formulas because there's an increased risk for foodborne illness.”

Sometimes, Pannell said watering down Daisy's baby formula is her only option.

“We've hit spells where it's been like, we couldn't find formula the day before. So, we had to water down a bottle or two to get to the point where we could drive an hour to go find formula,” Pannell said.

As a result of people watering down formula or using homemade recipes, Kusenda said her hospital is treating increasing numbers of children who aren’t getting the nutrition they need.

“How are they going to get these formulas to keep their babies nourished and developed … so that they don't end up in the hospital with dehydration and malnutrition? And we have seen some of those incidents, where infants or children have been admitted to the hospital,” Kusenda said.

Searching for formula

Pediatricians are advising parents to consult online vendors or social media groups to access emergency supplies. If that doesn’t work, they’re also being told to search for baby formula in new places, sometimes out of their immediate area.

Paige Perriello is a Charlottesville-based pediatrician. She said the shortage is getting worse, especially during the past week.

“For the last month or so, we have started to field some calls from families that are on more specialty formulas. But in the last week, we have definitely had an increase in concern for those regular formulas that babies are on,” Perriello said. “We do have samples at our office that we have been giving away to families who need it. And for some of the specialty formulas that are harder to find, we're working with distributors and formula representatives and hospitals and WIC and other places to be sure that we can get families the specific formula that they need.”

Families forced to resort to finding baby formula online are also vulnerable to price gouging. Kusenda said when big stores like Walmart or Amazon run out of baby formula, secondary online sources drive up the prices of these life-sustaining supplies.

Pannell says she’s also observed the hoarding of baby formula, leaving few options for parents like her who can’t afford to buy in bulk.

“It's pretty gross, because you can walk into Walmart on days where they restock and see people with the bottom of their carts full of formula. I've seen people literally just take their arm and scoop out an entire shelf of formula,” Pannell said. “You're not supposed to buy dented cans of formula… But when you go to the store and all that's left is three or four dented cans of formula, you kind of just have to hope so your baby can eat something.”

No other option

Relying on baby formula isn’t a choice for many parents and guardians. Families that don’t include people assigned female at birth have no other options, and even families with biological mothers don’t always breastfeed due to medical issues or cultural acceptance . There are lots of reasons why this might happen, according to the CDC, including issues with lactation and latching, concerns about infant nutrition, a mother’s need to take medications while breastfeeding, and unsupportive work policies or a lack of family support.

“After I gave birth, I was not given the option to breastfeed. They did not know I was pregnant at the time and gave me a load of muscle relaxers and painkillers. So, I didn't start producing until two to three weeks after Daisy was born. And by then, if I tried to pump or anything like that, it slowly fizzled out,” Pannell said. “For those women who have deficiencies, or have had cancer or things like that, it's just not an option for everybody.”

Though it’s impacting many parents and guardians in the U.S., the hardest hit by the shortage are impoverished caregivers, particularly low-income Black women. That's because Black women have the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the country, according to the National Library of Medicine. There are again many reasons for those disparities, including that Black women are less likely than white women to report having received breastfeeding advice. They also often need to return to work sooner than white mothers.

Recipients of benefits through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children are also particularly vulnerable to changes in the supply of baby formula. Only certain brands are approved for purchase through the WIC program, and even families who qualify for those benefits can’t rely on WIC to fund the entirety of their children’s nutritional needs. For example, under the Virginia WIC program, during the first month of an infant’s life, baby formula is not routinely provided. And in cases when WIC staff decides that formula is needed, the amount of baby formula available to families is capped at a single can during that first month.

Virginia WIC’s current infant formula contract is with Abbot. Several products from the company, including some powdered Similac, Alimentum and EleCare formulas manufactured in Sturgis, Michigan, were recalled in February. Those recalls were in response to reports that four infants who consumed baby formula manufactured at the plant became infected with Cronobacter sakazakii bacteria, resulting in the death of two of the babies.

An investigation by the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later revealed that no products contaminated with the bacteria were distributed by the company. However, their report says the company was failing to ensure that their baby formula was not contaminated. These included unsanitary conditions and a lack of protective equipment for staff.

Distinguishing among brands

Virginia WIC responded to the recall by temporarily expanding the list of manufacturers from which program participants can purchase products. However, WIC families who need specialized baby formula brands must reapply for a prescription from the health department, according to Paula Garrett, the director of the Virginia Department of Health’s community nutrition division.

Eva Colen, the manager of Richmond’s Office of Children and Families, implored families not limited by WIC’s restrictions to leave those supplies for caregivers with fewer choices.

“If you are purchasing formula, and you are not on WIC, do what you can to buy those options that are not WIC restrictive,” Colen said during a Tuesday press conference. “When you go to that shopping center, take the extra step to look and see if there's a purple sticker on the price label that says ‘WIC’ on it. Because that means that somebody has no other options.”

On the local level, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney called on Gov. Glenn Youngkin earlier this week to declare a state of emergency in order to trigger the commonwealth’s anti-price gouging legislation and to permanently expand formula options for WIC recipients.

“I cannot think of a greater emergency than the inability for families to feed their babies,” Stoney said. “I want our commonwealth leaders to extend the WIC alternative formula approval indefinitely and to expand the approved list to include as many options as possible. Bottom line, no babies should suffer because of a monopoly.”

Abbott said in a press release that the company is taking steps to address unsafe and unsanitary conditions at its facility. Once the FDA confirms that changes have been made, Abbott said production at the factory could be restarted within two weeks. But it will take an additional six to eight weeks until new products become available on shelves, according to the company’s chairperson and CEO, Robert Ford.

“Our number one priority is getting infants and families the high quality formulas they need, and this is a major step toward reopening our Sturgis facility, so we can ease the nationwide formula shortage. We look forward to working with the FDA to quickly and safely reopen the facility," Ford said.

In the meantime, the Biden administration announced it is taking steps to make it easier for infant formulas to be restocked. The president called on states’ attorneys to crack down on price gouging, and has instructed the FDA to loosen its restrictions regarding the import of baby formula from abroad.

On Wednesday, the president also invoked the Defense Production Act of 1950, which allows him to require suppliers to direct needed resources to formula manufacturers before other customers. Biden also announced on Twitter that he’s created “Operation Fly Formula,” which will deploy Department of Defense planes to speed up baby formula shipments into the country.

“I’ve directed my team to do everything possible to ensure there’s enough safe baby formula and that it’s quickly reaching families,” Biden said.

Several social media pages have sprung up in response to the shortage. For parents and guardians searching for baby formula in the Richmond area, try following @rva_formula_finder on Instagram. In the Norfolk region, Hernandez has also started a similar page blog on Tumblr