The White House said the president discussed with executives from Gerber and Reckitt how they could increase production and how his administration could help, and spoke with leaders from Walmart and Target about how to restock shelves and address regional disparities in formula access.
The administration plans to monitor potential price gouging and work with trading partners in Mexico, Chile, Ireland and the Netherlands on imports, even though 98% of the infant formula is locally made.
The problem is caused by supply chain disruptions and safety recalls, and it has had a cascade of effects: Retailers are limiting what customers can buy, doctors and health workers are urging parents to contact food banks or doctors’ offices, as well as warning about diluted formula to extend supplies or use DIY recipes via Internet.
The shortages are especially heavy on lower-income families after the merchandise maker Abbott pulled its products over contamination concerns. The recall eliminated many of the brands covered by WIC, a federal program like food stamps that serves women, infants, and children, although the program now allows brand substitutions. The Biden administration is working with states to make it easier for WIC beneficiaries to purchase in various sizes of formula that their benefits may not currently cover.
According to the White House, about half of all infant formula nationwide is purchased by participants who use the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program benefits.
Clara Hinton, 30, of Hartford, Connecticut, is among that group. She has a 10-month-old daughter, Pattens, who has allergies that require special formula.
Hinton, who had no car, would take a bus to the suburbs, get from town to town, and eventually find some suitable formula at the box store in West Hartford. But she said the store refused to take her WIC card, and it’s not the first time this has happened.
Hinton said her baby recently ran out of formula that had already been opened, so she got it from a friend.
“It doesn’t have a formula,” she said. “I just put her on regular milk. What do I do? Her pediatrician explained that I’m not supposed to do it, but what do I do?”
In Utah, fellow WIC-card holder Elizabeth Amador has been going from store to store every day after finishing work in a Salt Lake City call center in a desperate search for a specific formula her 9-month-old daughter needs. She has only recently had one can, but she had four cans on Thursday. She said she won’t stop her stressful daily routine until she knows the deficiency is over.
“It’s miserable, you know, because of the high gas prices,” Amador said. “We have to drive everywhere to find the formula. It’s for sure.”
Some parents also use social media to bridge supply gaps.
Ashley Maddox, a 31-year-old mother of two from San Diego, started a Facebook group on Wednesday after failing to find formula for her 5-month-old son Cole at the rep at the Navy base.
“I reached out to a girl in my group who had seven cartons of formula I needed and was sitting in her house her baby no longer needed,” she said. “So I got out in the car, it was about a 20 minute drive and I picked it up and paid for it. It was a miracle.”
She said there was already a stigma attached to the mother not being breastfeeding and that the group had become supportive. “Not being able to have that formula, it’s scary,” she said.
Jennifer Kersey, 36, of Cheshire, Connecticut, said she was counting on the last can of milk for her 7-month-old son, Blake Kersey, Jr., before someone saw her posts on a Facebook group and brought with her some samples of the cans. . She said she and others in the group help each other out, find stores that might have the formula in stock and deliver it to moms who need it.
“At first I started to panic,” she said. “But, I’m a believer in the Lord, so I said, ‘Oh my God, I know you’ll support me’ and just started reaching out to people, ‘Hey, do you have that formula?'” ”
Kimberly Anderson, 34, of Hartford County, Maryland, said her seven-and-a-half-month-old son takes a prescription that’s nearly impossible to find locally. She took to social media and said that people in Utah and Boston found the formula that I paid for to have it shipped.
“They say that raising a child requires a village,” she said. “I didn’t know my village stretched across the entire United States because I reach out to friends and family looking up their zip codes so I can check out their local Walmarts to have them ship directly to me.”
Shortages of basic commodities have been a problem since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Access to medical supplies, computer chips, home appliances, cars and other goods has been hit by factory closures and virus outbreaks, as well as storms and other climate-related events.
Products specifically for young children are offered, including goat’s milk powder and plant-based milk powders.
One banner ad on Amazon offers “Organic Non-GMO Formula for Babies and Toddlers,” but a close inspection of the product’s photo shows it’s only intended for babies over 12 months old. Other advertisements for infant formula appear on the Amazon website on the Unavailable Infant formula pages.
Baby formula cans often look a lot like cans of baby formula, but the ingredients are distinct, as baby formula sometimes contains more sugar and calories, said Frances Fleming Millesi, UConn’s director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center who has studied infant formula packaging. Also, infant formula does not follow the Food and Drug Administration’s standards for milk.
“It’s not like you’re buying a pair of shoes. It’s somewhat more risky,” Fleming Melici said. “They serve something you shouldn’t give your child.”
Dr. Navneet Hundal, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said she and other pediatricians have been formula deficient for months. She said that Formula Ones had stopped giving out samples that she could pass on to her parents. She advises new parents to speak to their pediatricians to see if there are other brands of formula they can safely give their newborns.
“This governs our clinical practices at the moment,” she said.
The safety recall exacerbated the challenges.
The Food and Drug Administration warned consumers on February 17 to avoid some powdered infant formula products from the Sturgis, Michigan facility operated by Abbott Nutrition, which then began a voluntary recall. According to findings published by federal safety inspectors in March, Abbott failed to maintain sanitary conditions and procedures at the plant.
The FDA began its investigation after four children developed a rare bacterial infection after eating a factory-made formula. The four were taken to hospital and two died. “There is no evidence linking our formulations to these pediatric diseases,” Chicago-based Abbott said in a statement. Abbott noted that the bacteria samples collected from the infants did not match those found at the company’s plant.
Pending FDA approval, Abbott said, “we can restart the site in two weeks.” The company will first start producing EleCare, Alimentum and Metabolite formulations and then start producing Similac and other formulas. Once production begins, it will take six to eight weeks for infant formula to be available on shelves.
On Tuesday, the US Food and Drug Administration said it was working with US manufacturers to increase their production and simplify paperwork to allow for more imports.
“We recognize that this is certainly a challenge for people across the country, and it is something the president is very focused on and we will do everything we can to cut red tape and take steps to increase supply,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
Meanwhile, the shortage was politicized Thursday as Republicans including Texas Governor Greg Abbott criticized the Biden administration for providing infant formula to children detained at the US-Mexico border.
Biden, in a letter sent Thursday to the Federal Trade Commission, pressed the independent agency “to bring all the Commission’s tools to bear” to investigate and act in response to reports of fraud or price gouging as a result of the supply disruption.
“It is unacceptable for families to waste time and spend hundreds of dollars more on the actions of price manipulators,” he wrote to FTC Chair Lina Khan.
Eaton Robb reported from Columbia, Connecticut. Associated Press writers Mike Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey, Steve LeBlanc in Boston, Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City, and Amanda Seitz in Washington contributed to this report.