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Why can’t parents find formula milk? Major recall heightens supply chain safeguard

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WASHINGTON Many parents seek out infant formula due to a combination of short and long term problems which hit most of the biggest American brands.

Millions of babies in the United States depend on formula, which is the only recommended source of nutrition for infants who are not exclusively breastfed.

Here’s a look at what’s behind the problem and what parents can do:

WHY IS THERE A SHORTAGE?

Ongoing supply disruptions have combined with a recent safety recall to leave many drugstore and supermarket shelves empty.

The problems began last year when the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in economy-wide labour, transportation and raw materials issues that did not spare the formulas industry. Inventory was further reduced by parents stocking up during COVID-19 closures.

Then in February, Abbott Nutrition recalled several major brands powdered formula and closed its Sturgis, Michigan plant when federal authorities began investigating four babies who had suffered bacterial infections after consuming formula from the facility.

Abbott is one of the few companies to produce the vast majority of the formula supply in the United States, so their recall wiped out much of the market.

WHAT’S IN BABY FORMULA?

Most formulas contain cow’s milk protein that has been modified to be easier to digest and fortified with additional nutrients needed for growth and development. The Food and Drug Administration sets specific nutritional requirements, including minimum amounts of protein, fat, calcium, and a number of vitamins. Formula manufacturers achieve these levels by adding various sugars, oils, and minerals.

The formulas are designed to mimic breast milk, although studies have repeatedly shown better health outcomes for breastfed babies.

WHY CAN’T ALL MOTHERS RELY ON BREAST MILK?

Health professionals recommend exclusively breastfeeding babies until they are 6 months old. But federal figures show that only 1 in 4 people rely solely on breast milk at this age.

Mothers face a number of long-term breastfeeding challenges, including returning to work and finding the time and equipment to express breast milk. About 60% of mothers stop breastfeeding sooner than they planned, according to Centers for the Control and Prevention of Disasters.

State and federal laws have been enacted to encourage breastfeeding in requiring break time and accommodation for mothers of infants.

Breastfeeding rates have always been lower among black babies than among other groups. About three-quarters of black babies are breastfed in infancy, below the national average of 84%, according to the CDC.

WHAT SHOULD PARENTS DO IF THEY HAVE TROUBLE FINDING A PREPARED FORMULA?

Talk to your pediatrician or call a local food bank to see if they can help you find some options. Experts also recommend checking with smaller stores and pharmacies, which may still have supplies when larger stores run out.

Most regular baby formulas contain the same basic ingredients and nutrients, so parents shouldn’t hesitate to buy a different brand if they’re having trouble finding one.

Some infants need special formulas due to allergies, digestive issues, and other medical conditions. Parents should talk to their doctor if they can’t find these products, which manufacturers typically distribute through pharmacies and clinics.

Families eligible for WIC, a federal program similar to food stamps that pays about half the formula used in the United States, can also contact their local agency.

Health officials also warn against purchasing formula through social media websites or outside of conventional retailers, as they may be counterfeit.

WHY ARE PARENTS TOLD NOT TO USE ONLINE FORMULA RECIPES?

Many make-it-yourself formula recipes are made with cow’s milk and granulated sugar which can be difficult for young babies to digest. They also lack the specific vitamins and proteins found in breast milk and FDA-approved formulas that are needed for basic nutrition.

Especially for small babies, many of these formulas and blends found online don’t even contain the most basic blends of nutrients that babies need to survive, said Dr. Steven Abrams, a pediatrician at the University of Texas at Austin.

Abrams also stressed that parents should never dilute infant formula.

WHAT ARE RETAILERS DOING TO KEEP THE FORMULA IN STOCK?

Several national chains have limited the number of containers customers can buy in stores and online. For CVS and Walgreens, the limit is three per customer. Target limits purchases to four per person when shopping online.

Amazon said Thursday it is working to keep products available on its website and monitoring third-party sellers for price gouging.

If we identify a price that violates our policy, we remove the offer and take appropriate action with the seller, a company spokesperson said in a statement.

WHEN IS SUPPLY LIKELY TO IMPROVE?

Health regulators recently announced several measures to boost supply, including allowing faster importation of foreign-made infant formula. Typically, 98% of infant formula consumed in the United States is made domestically, according to federal officials.

The FDA is working with Abbott to correct the violations that triggered the closure of its Michigan plant, which produces Similac, EleCare and several other leading powder formulas.

The company says its products have not been directly linked to bacterial infections in children, pointing out that genetic samples taken from its factory did not match those found in several infants who fell ill.

The Chicago-based company said this week that, pending FDA approval, it could restart manufacturing at its plant within two weeks. After that, it would take another six to eight weeks for new products to hit store shelves.

But even then, experts warn that many industry-wide problems will continue to limit supplies.

It’s going to be a problem and it’s not going to go away for at least a period of months, Abrams said.

— The Associated Press

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