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Empty shelves and hungry infants

WASHINGTON (AP) – Parents across the United States (US) are scrambling to find baby formula because supply disruptions and a massive safety recall have swept many leading brands off store shelves.

Months of spot shortages at pharmacies and supermarkets have been exacerbated by the recall at Abbott, which was forced to shutter its largest US formula manufacturing plant in February due to contamination concerns.

On Monday, White House press secretary Jenn Psaki said the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was “working around the clock to address any possible shortages”.

On Tuesday, the FDA said it was working with manufacturers to increase their output and streamlining paperwork to allow more imports.

Paediatricians and health workers are urging parents who can’t find formula to contact food banks or doctor’s offices. They warn against watering down formula to stretch supplies or using online recipes.

“For babies who are not being breastfed, this is the only thing they eat,” said Dr Steven Abrams, of the University of Texas, Austin. “So it has to have all of their nutrition and, furthermore, it needs to be properly prepared so that it’s safe for the smallest infants.” Laura Stewart, a 52-year-old mother of three who lives just north of Springfield, Missouri, has been struggling for several weeks to find formula for her 10-month-old daughter Riley.

Riley normally gets a brand of Abbott’s Similac designed for children with sensitive stomachs. Last month, she tried four different brands.

ABOVE & BELOW: Baby formula shelves are almost cleared out in a grocery store in Carmel, Indiana; and a ‘limited supplies’ sign is shown on a baby formula shelf. PHOTOS: AP

“She spits up more. She’s just more cranky. She is typically a very happy girl,” Stewart said.

“When she has the right formula, she doesn’t spit up. She’s perfectly fine.”

Retailers have begun limiting purchases to three containers per customer.

Nationwide about 40 per cent of large retail stores are out of stock, up from 31 per cent in mid-April, according to data analytics firm Datasembly.

More than half of US states are seeing out-of-stock rates between 40 per cent and 50 per cent, according to the firm.

Baby formula is particularly vulnerable to disruptions because just a handful of companies account for almost the entire US supply.

Industry executives said constraints began last year as the COVID-19 pandemic led to logistics disruptions. Supplies were further squeezed by parents stockpiling during lockdowns.

In February, Abbott recalled several brands and shut down a factory when federal officials concluded four babies suffered bacterial infections after consuming formula from the facility. Two infants died.

When FDA inspectors visited the plant in March they found lax safety protocols and traces of the bacteria.

None of the bacterial strains matched those collected from the infants, however, and the FDA hasn’t offered an explanation for how the contamination occurred.

The shortages are especially dangerous for infants who require specialty formulas due to food allergies, digestive problems and other conditions.

After hearing concerns from parents, the FDA said last month that Abbott could begin releasing some specialty formulas not affected by recalls “on a case-by-case basis”.

The company is providing them free of charge, in coordination with physicians and hospitals.

Food safety advocates said the FDA made the right call, but that parents should talk to their paediatricians before using it.

Other infant formula makers are “meeting or exceeding capacity levels to meet current demand”, the agency said.

The FDA said it was waiving enforcement of minor product labelling issues to increase availability of both US and imported products.

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