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Why Is There a Baby Formula Shortage?

The parents of young babies in 2022, the same mothers and fathers who faced intense obstacles while expecting their child during a worldwide pandemic, are facing yet another challenge.

Grocery stores are running out of baby formula and are limiting how much a customer is allowed to buy at one time.

Empty baby formula shelves at a supermarket

The shortage of formula means countless infants in this country may be running the risk of becoming malnourished. The Centers for Disease Control encourages parents to hold off on introducing babies to solid foods for the first six months of life. Instead, the agency recommends parents either breastfeed or use store-bought formula to feed their babies. While there are thousands of mothers who exclusively breastfeed their children, about 75 percent of this country’s babies rely on store-bought formula throughout this time.

Although the Infant Nutrition Council of America, an organization supporting baby food manufacturers, tried to assure parents in a statement on its website that manufacturers are increasing production to meet families’ needs, the store shelves remain empty. 

According to findings released by Datasembly, a clearinghouse for retail statistics, which studied sales and merchandise at more than 11,000 stores, the average out-of-stock level for baby formula brands climbed to almost 30 percent at retailers throughout the United States so far this year. Datasembly also reported that stores in three major urban areas, including Des Moines, Minneapolis and San Antonio, had an out-of-stock level higher than 50 percent. 

Popular retailers affected by the shortage include Walmart, which has instituted a five-per-day limit on formula, and CVS Health and Walgreens, which are limiting customers to three formula products per transaction.

How Did The Baby Formula Shortage Happen?

The supply chain: The baby formula shortage can be linked to the country’s supply chain issues caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. Manufacturers are struggling to procure ingredients to make their products and hire workers to keep up with consumer demand.

Recalls: In February, Abbott Nutrition recalled several powdered baby formula products under the name brands Similac, EleCare and Alimentum, further exacerbating the problem. The recalls resulted from information first attained by federal officials last year concerning several babies hospitalized in Michigan due to bacterial infections. Each child had been given a formula made at the Abbott Laboratories manufacturing plant in Sturgis, Michigan. 

Although a definitive connection between the babies and tainted baby formula has not been confirmed, traces of the bacteria cronobacter sakazakii were found by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors at the Sturgis plant. Cronobacter sakazakii is a bacteria that can cause life-threatening conditions especially dangerous in infants.  

Abbott’s Michigan plant has stopped production while the company works with the FDA to resolve the problems cited by the inspectors.

The formula shortage is far from the only issue surrounding the baby food industry in recent times. In 2021, dozens of contaminated baby food lawsuits were filed against manufacturers after toxic heavy metals were found in their products.

Also, in the last year, there have been several lawsuits by parents whose premature babies contracted necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a serious and often fatal disease, after consuming cow’s milk-based formula. NEC can affect the intestines of premature infants after being fed this type of formula.  The lawsuits have been filed against two manufacturers, including Abbott Laboratories and Mead Nutrition.

The plaintiffs in the NEC baby formula lawsuits allege the manufacturers hid the risks of NEC and sold their products as safe feeding options. 

Along with the concerns over safety and the shortage of baby formulas, to add insult to injury, baby formula prices are rising despite the lack of availability. According to one report by CBS News, parents have seen the average cost of baby formula increase about 18 percent over the last 12 months.