WASHINGTON — (AP) — Across the United States, parents are scrambling to find formula milk because supply disruptions and a massive safety recall have swept many big-name brands from store shelves.
Months of one-off shortages at pharmacies and supermarkets have been exacerbated by the recall at Abbott, which was forced to close its largest U.S. formula manufacturing plant in February due to contamination concerns.
On Monday, White House press secretary Jenn Psaki said the Food and Drug Administration was “working around the clock to address potential shortages” and would try to expedite imports of foreign infant formula to increase supply.
For now, pediatricians and healthcare workers are urging parents who can’t find formula to contact food banks or doctors’ offices. They caution against diluting the formula to stretch supplies or using DIY recipes online.
“For babies who aren’t breastfed, it’s the only thing they eat,” said Dr Steven Abrams, of the University of Texas, Austin. “So it has to have all their nutrition and, furthermore, it has to be properly prepared so that it’s safe for the smallest infants.
Laura Stewart, a 52-year-old mother of three who lives just north of Springfield, Mo., has struggled for weeks to find formula for her 10-month-old daughter, Riley.
Riley normally gets a brand of Similac from Abbott designed for children with sensitive stomachs. Last month, she instead used four different brands.
“She spits more. She’s just grumpier. She’s usually a very happy girl,” Stewart said. “When she’s got the formula right, she doesn’t regurgitate. She’s perfectly fine.”
A small box costs $17 to $18 and lasts three to five days, Stewart said.
Like many Americans, Stewart relies on WIC — a federal food stamp-like program that serves mothers and children — to provide her daughter with formula. Abbott’s recall wiped out many WIC-covered brands, although the program now allows substitutions.
Trying to keep the formula in stock, retailers including CVS and Walgreens began limiting purchases to three containers per customer.
Nationwide, about 40% of major retail stores are out of stock, up from 31% in mid-April, according to Datasembly, a data analytics firm. More than half of US states are experiencing stock-out rates between 40% and 50%, according to the firm, which collects data from 11,000 locations.
Infant formula is particularly vulnerable to disruption, as only a handful of companies account for nearly all of the US supply.
Industry executives say the constraints began last year when the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in ingredients, labor and transportation. Supplies have been further reduced by parents who have stocked up during the closures.
Then, in February, Abbott recalled several major brands and closed its plant in Sturgis, Michigan, when federal officials concluded that four babies suffered from bacterial infections after consuming formula from the facility. Two of the infants died.
When FDA inspectors visited the plant in March, they found lax safety protocols and traces of bacteria on several surfaces. However, none of the bacterial strains matched those taken from infants, and the FDA did not provide an explanation of how the contamination occurred.
For its part, Abbott says its formula “is not likely the source of the infection,” although the FDA says its investigation is ongoing.
Shortages are especially dangerous for infants who need special formulas due to food allergies, digestive problems and other conditions.
“Unfortunately, many of these very specialized formulas are only made in the United States at the recalling plant, and this has caused a huge problem for a relatively small number of infants,” Abrams said.
After hearing parental concerns, the FDA said last month that Abbott may begin releasing certain specialty formulas unaffected by recalls “on a case-by-case basis.” The company provides them free of charge, in coordination with doctors and hospitals. .
Food safety advocates say the FDA made the right choice in releasing the formula, but parents should talk to their pediatricians before using it.
“There is still some risk with the formula because we know there are issues at the plant and the FDA has not identified a root cause,” said Sarah Sorscher of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “But it’s worth releasing because those infants could die without it.”
It’s unclear when the Abbott plant could reopen.
An FDA spokeswoman said the company was still working “to rectify the findings related to processes, procedures, and conditions.” The agency is also working with other manufacturers to consider options for increasing production.
Industry professionals say it will be difficult to increase supply quickly, as the FDA requires extensive testing, labeling and inspections.
“It’s a long and rigorous process to bring new manufacturers to this country,” said Ron Belldegrun, co-founder of ByHeart, a New York-based formula maker that recently launched its first product after four years of development. .
Hollingsworth reported from Kansas City, Missouri.
Follow Matthew Perrone on Twitter: @AP_FDAwriter
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