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Baby formula supply issues send parents scrambling

Formula shortages have been growing since November.
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A new baby formula warning threatens to strain already stretched supplies even more, leaving desperate parents scrambling.

The FDA announced Thursday that it is working with Abbott Nutrition to initiate a voluntary recall of certain lots of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare powdered infant formula after complaints that four infants fell ill and were hospitalized in three states, One death may possibly be linked to tainted formula.

Abbott's internal records "indicate environmental contamination with Cronobacter sakazakii and the firm’s destruction of product due to the presence of Cronobacter," the FDA said in a release.

“Retained samples of the formula tested negative for either bacteria and no distributed product has tested positive for the presence of either of these bacteria, and we continue to test,” said Ellen Wichman, an Abbott spokesperson, in an email.

The warning and likely recall only increases availability concerns for parents who for months have found store shelves increasingly bare of formula, as unexpected demand and labor shortages disrupt supplies.

Michelle Perruzzi, 30, a courtroom monitor who records judicial proceedings  and a mother of two from Fairfield County, Connecticut, has been driving every day for four months between seven local stores to scour the shelves for Alimentum formula for her 7-month-old, Alejandro. 

Image: Michelle Peruzzi
Michelle Peruzzi with her 7-month-old, Alejandro. Courtesy Michelle Peruzzi

“It’s been really hard," she said. “Every time we went to look for it, the shelf was empty. If we were lucky, there were one or two cans on the shelf.” The situation is even more critical because since she’s gone back to work she’s been unable to keep breastfeeding and Alejandro has an allergy to certain kinds of formula, limiting their options further.

She’s taken to calling and texting friends from out of town and posting in local parent Facebook groups. One time she found six cans for sale on Walmart. But by the time she typed in her credit card information, they were gone.  

“That was the moment I freaked out the most,” said Perruzzi. “It’s insanity.”

Growing disruption

Before the pandemic, out-of-stock levels of baby formula hovered around 5 percent, according to the market research firm IRI Worldwide. Anything above 10 percent is concerning.

But out-of-stock levels of baby formula quickly shot up to 25 percent in February, from 11 percent in December, according to an analysis by the consumer product data firm Datasembly made at the request of NBC News. 

Image: Baby formula, seen here on a shelf in a store in Chicago on Jan. 13, 2022, has been is short supply in many stores around the country for several months.
Baby formula has been in short supply around the country for months. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Ben Reich, CEO of Datasembly, said it looked at more than 11,000 stores. “We looked at 200-plus baby formula products commonly carried at the top 20 national and local retailers, including the three largest national grocery retailers,” he said.

“Particularly, for areas like Florida and New Jersey, the average is between 40 percent and 43 percent, which means lots of empty shelves in the baby aisles among a number of stores,” said Reich.

In November and December, Enfamil apologized to customers complaining on Twitter about shortages, saying that “due to high demand” some of its products would be out of stock for “an extended period of time.” 

Pointing fingers

The Infant Nutrition Council of America, an industry trade group representing top formula makers, has cited general supply chain issues affecting all manufacturers, specifically transportation, labor and logistical snarls. 

“Infant formula manufacturers are actively working with suppliers, distributors, retailers and state agencies to ensure availability and access to infant formula products, to quickly address the needs of babies everywhere,” the group said in a statement.

Formula makers have said that the product is being delivered. But retailers aren’t getting them to stores and shelves, The Wall Street Journal reported. Meanwhile, retailers say that makers could be having difficulty sourcing raw ingredients, and that there are reports of stockpiling.

“Product supply challenges are currently impacting most of the retail industry,” said Matt Blanchette, a CVS spokesperson. "We’re continuing to work with our national brand baby formula vendors to address this issue and we regret any inconvenience that our customers may be experiencing.”

Two brands alone account for 60 percent of the shortfall, Enfamil and Similac, according to Datasembly.

Image: Enfamil baby formula has been is short supply in many stores around the country.
Enfamil baby formula has been is short supply in many stores around the country.Scott Olson / Getty Images

Abbott, the maker of Similac, has ramped up to round-the-clock shifts and is making more formula than ever, according to a spokesperson.

A spokesperson for the Reckitt Benckiser Group, makers of Enfamil, said it is increasing production and is shipping 30 percent more product to keep up with the demand surge.

“We are facing a very unusual supply and demand picture. Consumer demand across the US IFCN (infant formula/child nutrition) category has been particularly strong relative to births and historical consumption patterns," the spokesperson, Martinne Geller, said in an email. "There are multiple reasons for this, including some parents ensuring they have adequate stocks amid broader concerns about supply chains.”

In early February, Bloomberg reported the company was considering a sale of the Enfamil division.

“Increasing birth rates are going to drive demand higher, it’s going to be harder for companies to map out,” and keep production ahead of that curve, said Ryan Closser, director of supply chain collaboration for the logistics firm FourKites.

Difficulties in hiring could also be hampering production and distribution, said Closer.

“Job openings are everywhere. No doubt about if you go into restaurants, grocery stores, there’s 2 out of 15 cashier lanes open, there’s certainly a labor shortage. That could have a ripple effect throughout all of this,” he said.

The average out-of-stock percentages of baby formula at major national stores began ticking upward in Spring 2021 before recovering slightly in the fall, then suddenly spiked starting in January.
The average out-of-stock percentages of baby formula at major national stores began ticking upward in Spring 2021 before recovering slightly in the fall, then suddenly spiked starting in January.Datasemby

Possible solutions

There are a few things parents can try to get around the shortage. They can safely switch brands as long as the formulation is the same, dairy-based for dairy-based, Dr. Katie Lockwood, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told the "TODAY" show. 

But she advised against switching bases, like going from soy to dairy. Lockwood also warned against watering down formula, using expired formula, or making your own.

“Formula is a complex product. It’s a very complicated balance of having enough water and nutrients,” Lockwood said. “Having too much extra water can be very dangerous to some children’s brains — and having too little water can be dangerous. It’s really a delicate balance that’s best done by a chemist.”

Parents can contact their pediatrician, who may be able to order a special shipment from the manufacturer. Or they can contact the company’s customer service line and try to request supplies directly. Donor milk, available through a milk bank or prescribing physician, is another option.

Families can also try asking their local store manager when formula is restocked and planning their trips on those days. Some families have also resorted to posting on social media parent groups, even those out of town, to arrange a deal or swap.

Women’s shelters, food banks and faith-based organizations that provide food assistance may also have supplies.

Meanwhile, panic-stricken parents like Perruzzi are at their wits' end. She even called the local facility distributing the baby formula, only to find the number was disconnected.

“I would pay $60, $80 a can,” rather than let her son go hungry, she said. “I would pay anything.”