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Baby formula shortage continues; plant to restart production in June

Baby aisle at Marble Falls Walmart

Shoppers are finding shelves empty of baby formula, including at Walmart in Marble Falls, as the national shortage continues. U.S. officials hope supplies will begin to increase sometime in June as the Abbott Nutrition facility in Sturgis, Michigan, resumes manufacturing following a shutdown over safety concerns. Staff photo by Jennifer Greenwell

As Samantha Wampler turned down the H-E-B baby aisle in February, her heart sank. The mother of a then 10-month-old girl found bare shelves where the baby formula should be.

This particular shopping trip happened shortly after Abbott Nutrition, maker of Similac baby formula, voluntarily recalled certain products due to possible contamination. One of four companies that produce and sell about 90 percent of the U.S. supply of baby formula, Abbott Nutrition accounts for close to 50 percent of the market.

“When the news of the Similac recall came out, I went to H-E-B expecting to get my formula — and it wasn’t Similac — and when I turned the corner (to go down the aisle), it was all gone,” Wampler said. “There was definitely true worry involved because, as a parent, you want to be able to feed your child, and when you turn the corner and there’s no formula there, you get scared.”

Wampler and others initially thought it was a short-term problem and that the formula would be back on shelves in the coming days. Much to their dismay, however, the shortage continues and will do so until the Abbott Nutrition plant is back in production sometime in June.

Wampler, whose baby is now on whole milk and more solid foods, continues to hunt for formula, which she buys for friends when she finds it.

The recall happened following four consumer complaints regarding Cronobacter sakazakii and Salmonella Newport found in infants who had ingested formula from Abbott Nutrition’s facility in Sturgis, Michigan. 

During an inspection of the facility, Abbott Nutrition found evidence of  Cronobacter sakazakii in non-product contact areas. It did not find any traces of Salmonella Newport. The company tests all products before they leave the facility, and, according to Abbott Nutrition, no product tested positive for pathogens. Also, the strains of the bacteria found in the plant didn’t appear to match the strains found in the infants, Abbott Nutrition reported.

According to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration report issued March 18, 2022, however, the agency identified Cronobacter sakazakii in the powdered infant production environment at the Sturgis facility. The FDA report highlighted two finished products, based on Abbott Nutrition’s non-conformance reports, that tested positive for Cronobacter sakazakii: one in September 2019 and the other in June 2020. Those products were not released for sale.

The FDA noted several other issues with the Sturgis facility, including water leaks. These findings contributed to the continued delay of Abbott Nutrition restarting baby formula production at the facility as the company worked to rectify the situation. 

While Abbott Nutrition’s recall and production stoppage was the main case of the current baby formula shortage, the problem has been building for several months, even years, experts say.

With so much of the market concentrated among just four companies — Abbott Nutrition, Mead Johnson Nutrition, Nestlé USA, and Perrigo — a disruption to any one of them could send shockwaves through store aisles. Currently, 98 percent of baby formula sold in the United States is made in the country. Several hurdles keep imported formula away.

The FDA has strict guidelines for baby formula coming from other countries. Even formula adhering to those rules could face a 17 percent tax. The new North American trade agreement — called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — went into effect July 1, 2020, and severely discourages baby formula imports from Canada, America’s largest trade partner.

Then, there’s the supply chain issue.

While Wampler wasn’t looking for Similac in February when the shortage began, she had been buying it in 2021 for her daughter. 

“My daughter was on a special kind of formula, Similac Pro Advance, for part of the year,” she said. 

But in late 2021, she couldn’t find the Pro Advance and switched to the H-E-B brand.

“I was told by H-E-B staff that Similac had switched from making the special types to the regular one because they couldn’t get the supplies to make the Pro Advance,” she said.

On May 18, President Joe Biden announced he was invoking the Defense Production Act to direct resources to infant formula manufacturing and initiating Operation Fly Formula to airlift infant formula that meets U.S. health and safety standards to the United States.

The FDA and Abbott Nutrition have also reached an agreement to allow the firm to reopen its Sturgis facility, which will restart production June 4. The company stated that new formula should begin showing up on store shelves around June 20.

This, however, means parents are likely to face continuing baby formula shortages for the coming weeks and might be looking for alternatives. Ideas floating around the internet and social media include homemade baby formula, whole milk, and goat’s milk, but health officials don’t recommend these options.

“The first thing we’re telling our parents is that if they can’t find the brand or type of formula they generally use, then go ahead and switch,” said Burnet County Health Authority Dr. Jules Madrigal. “We usually don’t want them to switch formulas, but, in this case, they can do it.”

Madrigal is not a fan of the homemade formula recipe making its way around the internet.

“We don’t want you to make your own because the formula is so complex with all the nutrients a baby needs that you’d almost have to be a chemist to make it,” she said. “Formula comes with everything a baby needs: the nutrients, vitamins, and electrolytes. It’s very complicated, and the ones you buy are so researched and have been developed to meet your baby’s needs. You can’t just make it in your kitchen.”

Parents also should never dilute formula with water, which can throw off the nutrients, especially electrolytes, she emphasized. 

As for whole milk and goat’s milk, doctors don’t recommend those either.

“I cannot emphasize enough that animal milks are not an appropriate substitute formula for young infants,” said Dr. Kim Fehlis, pediatrician with Baylor Scott & White-Marble Falls. “While milks all have some common nutrients, different species have different needs, and humans have different needs as well.

“Formulas are very precisely balanced to mimic human milk, but cow’s milk and goat’s milk do not have the necessary nutrients,” she added. “Plant milks are even further from human milk in nutrient balance and are also not an appropriate substitute.”

Parents with concerns and questions regarding baby formula should contact their pediatrician for advice.

As for Wampler, she was able to get some assistance from family. Her mother, who lives in Houston, found some baby formula and purchased it for her. The good news for Wampler came in late April when her daughter turned 1 and could consume whole milk and solid foods.

She’s still very much aware of the baby formula shortage. Wampler has friends with infants struggling with the lack of supply and limits on the number of items they can purchase. During a recent get-together for their kids, Wampler volunteered to go to H-E-B to pick up some party supplies. While she was there, she checked the baby formula aisle and found some. She bought her limit to give to her friend.

“Every time I go to H-E-B, I look down that aisle, and if there’s some formula, I buy what I can for people,” she added. “That’s how we’re going to get through it, helping each other out.”

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