WASHINGTON (AP) – Parents in the US are trying to find a baby mix because supply disruptions and a massive security recall have led many leading brands off store shelves.
The months-long shortage in pharmacies and supermarkets was exacerbated by the recall of Abbott, which was forced to close its largest formula plant in the US in February due to fears of infection.
On Monday, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the Office of Food and Drug Administration “is working around the clock to eliminate any possible shortcomings.”
On Tuesday, the FDA said it was working with U.S. manufacturers to increase their production and streamline paperwork to allow more imports.
At the moment, pediatricians and health professionals are urging parents who cannot find the mixture to go to food banks or doctor’s offices. They warn against diluting formulas to increase stocks or use online DIY recipes.
“For non-breastfed babies, this is the only thing they eat,” said Dr. Stephen Abrams of the University of Texas at Austin. “So it has to be all their food, and it also needs to be properly prepared to make it safe for the youngest babies.”
Laura Stewart, a 52-year-old mother of three who lives north of Springfield, Missouri, has been struggling for weeks trying to find a mix for her 10-month-old daughter Riley.
Usually Riley gets the Similac brand from Abbott, designed for children with a sensitive stomach. Last month, she used four different brands instead.
“She spits more. She’s just more capricious. “She’s usually a very happy girl,” Stewart said. “If she has the right formula, she doesn’t spit. She’s fine.”
A small bank costs $ 17 to $ 18 and lasts three to five days, Stewart said.
Like many Americans, Stewart relies on WIC – a federal food-coupon-like program that serves mothers and children – to afford the mix for his daughter. Abbott’s recall has destroyed many brands covering WIC, although the program now allows replacements.
Trying to keep the formula in stock, retailers including CVS and Walgreens began limiting purchases to three containers per customer.
Nationwide, about 40% of large retail stores are missing, up from 31% in mid-April, according to research firm Datasembly. According to the firm, which collects data from 11,000 locations, more than half of U.S. states have absentee rates ranging from 40% to 50%.
Baby formulas are particularly vulnerable to failures because only a few companies make up almost the entire supply to the US.
Industry leaders say the restrictions began last year when the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in ingredients, labor and transportation. Stocks were further compressed by parents who had accumulated during the blockade.
Then in February, Abbott recalled several major brands and closed its factory in Sturgis, Michigan, when federal officials concluded that four babies had contracted bacterial infections after using a mixture from the facility. Two of the babies died.
When FDA inspectors visited the plant in March, they found short-lived safety protocols and traces of bacteria on several surfaces. However, none of the bacterial strains matched those collected in infants, and the FDA did not offer an explanation for how the infection occurred.
For his part, Abbott says his formula “is not a source of infection”, although the FDA says the investigation is ongoing.
Chicago-based Abbott has said it is increasing production at its other plants to fill that gap, including air travel from a plant in Ireland.
Deficiency is especially dangerous for babies who need special mixtures due to food allergies, digestive problems and other diseases.
“Unfortunately, many of these highly specialized formulas are only made in the United States at a factory that has been recalled, and this has caused a big problem for a relatively small number of babies,” Abrams said.
After hearing parental concerns, the FDA said last month that Abbott could start releasing some special formulas not affected by the recall, “in each case.” The company provides them free of charge in consultation with doctors and hospitals.
Proponents of food safety say the FDA has rightly called for the release of the formula, but parents should talk to their pediatricians before using it.
“There is some risk from the formula because we know there are problems at the plant and the FDA has not identified the root cause,” said Sarah Sorscher of the Center for Public Interest Science. “But he should be released, because without it children can die.”
It is unclear when the Abbott plant may reopen.
The FDA said the company is still working “to correct findings related to processes, procedures and conditions.” Other manufacturers of baby formulas “reach or exceed power levels to meet current demand,” the agency said.
Among other steps, the FDA said it was abandoning minor problems with product labeling to increase the availability of both U.S. and imported products.