Empty store shelves where baby formula is meant to be stocked. Desperate parents driving from store to store hoping their luck is a little better at the next one.
Christina Davis of Columbus feels their pain, as she’s joined the droves of parents across the country affected by the baby formula shortage.
Davis breastfeeds her 7-month-old daughter but also supplements with formula. The shortage has forced her to rely more on breastfeeding than her milk supply can manage.
“Since the shortage happened, I have had to try my hardest to increase my milk supply, which is still not nearly enough for her,” Davis said. “It absolutely breaks my heart to go into stores and see the empty shelves. I’ve reached out to family members who live out of town and asked them desperately if they see formula on the shelves to please buy some and mail it to us.”
In February, Abbott Laboratories closed its Sturgis, Michigan, plant due to a report of the death of an infant with a Cronobacter sakazakii infection from powdered formula manufactured there, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, the Food and Drug Administration recalled Similac, Alimentum and EleCare formula produced there.
The shutdown of one factory has completely disrupted the country’s supply for infant care formula.
“Many news and industry sources have referred to this shortage as a perfect storm between the voluntary recall, labor shortages, facility shut down, demand, and ingredient supply chain issues stemming from COVID-19,” said Courtney Crist, assistant Extension professor of food safety at Mississippi State University.
There are four major formula manufacturers in the U.S., and 98 percent of the nation’s consumed formula is produced domestically, with the other 2 percent being imported from Mexico, Ireland, Netherlands, and Chile, according to William Maples, assistant professor of agricultural economics at MSU.
“The infant formula industry is highly concentrated with four major companies that control 90 percent of the infant formula supply in the U.S.,” Maples said. “These companies’ operations are highly centralized, so if one plant has to shut down production, you get a ripple effect across the whole supply chain. … The two main things that make it difficult to import infant formula into the U.S. are tariffs and nutritional standards. The U.S. subjects infant formula to tariffs up to 17.5 percent, and formula can also be subject to tariff-rate quotas. High tariffs make it costly to import baby formula into the U.S.”
Children from birth through at least 12 months are recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics to be fed breastmilk or formula, unless specified otherwise by a pediatrician. MSU Extension instructor Qula Madkin stressed the importance of baby formula and why some babies need specialized formula.
“Infant formula contains vital nutrients for growth and development to help babies thrive,” Madkin said. “… Like adults and children, one size doesn’t always fit all. Different formulas can be needed for a variety of reasons like allergies, higher nutrient needs, and gastrointestinal sensitivities, to name a few. Parents and guardians need to work with their child’s pediatrician to determine the best formula for their child.”
For parents dependent on the Women, Infants and Children’s (WIC) nutrition program, the situation in the state can seem even more hopeless because only certain formulas are available for them. Liz Sharlot, the director of communications with the Mississippi State Department of Health, said Mississippi WIC is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to figure out a plan.
“While participants of WIC now obtain formula from signed up vendors like grocery stores and pharmacies, the WIC staff is communicating with manufacturers and wholesalers to learn more about where shortages exist,” Sharlot wrote in an email to The Dispatch. “WIC is advising participants to continue to use the participant complaint process when issues occur; and it is following up and providing additional information when possible.”
Regardless of financial status, parents are struggling to find formula, but when they do, many share where so others can take advantage.
“It’s definitely a test of faith,” Davis said. “… It’s going to take everyone coming together and being considerate of others to get through this.”
The power of social media
Many people take to social media to share when and where they find formula. In parent and community groups on Facebook, such as Starkville Strong, parents also post what they have but can no longer use.
Janine Dunleavy, a moderator for the Starkville Strong group, requested at the end of April for people to post formula updates: what they need, what they can give, and what they find in stores.
This group has expanded beyond the city limits of Starkville. People from Louisville, West Point, Eupora and Columbus are in the group helping and asking for help.
“Formula is a necessity, so when I saw this was going on, I thought we should start a (Facebook) thread and we did,” Dunleavy said. “We’re able to connect parents to each other. Sometimes you get free samples from the doctor or you buy a formula and your baby doesn’t like it. People are even sharing half-cans. We wanted to facilitate people able to help each other. It’s harder for one person sharing they need help on their personal page, but now they have 14,000 people listening, which makes getting help a little more viable.”
There are more than 100 comments and 33 shares from parents on the Starkville Strong thread helping each other.
The Food and Drug Administration has advised against using any type of homemade formula as it can lack the necessary electrolytes and other nutrients for infants.
For those looking for an alternative, breast milk banks are available at a pediatrician’s recommendation.
Sloane Green, of Starkville, had her second child on May 3, and because she is overproducing breast milk, she started donating to a breastmilk bank.
“I breastfed my first child for about two years and still had a freezer full of milk,” Green said. “Honestly, throughout this pregnancy, I considered supplementing with formula to reduce my mental and physical load, but soon after I gave birth, there was the first news of the formula shortage. Again this time I’m overproducing with my breast milk. … I reached out to my OB/GYN office, and they let me know donated milk is usually given to babies in the (newborn intensive care unit). Now, with doctors writing prescriptions for other babies to receive breastmilk, there is a shortage of breastmilk too.”
Green reached out to the Mother’s Milk Bank of Mississippi to get the donation process started, and she said it involves paperwork, a short set of interview questions, and bloodwork before donating at least 100 ounces.
Optimism for the end
Over the last week, the FDA and Abbott Laboratories reached an agreement to amend safety issues at the Sturgis, Michigan factory, and should now open within the next two weeks, according to reports from the Associated Press.
President Joe Biden also invoked the Defense Production Act to increase formula production across the country. With these measures, there is light at the end of the tunnel for some parents.
“Although it will take two to three months for supply to truly hit the shelves again, I know it will be a relief,” William Pochop, father of a 5-month-old, told The Dispatch. “Before the closure of the plant, a lot of us parents never really thought about where formula comes from other than the grocery store. Now, it puts things in perspective.”