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What’s behind the baby formula shortage?

WASHINGTON (AP) – Many parents are hunting for infant formula because of a combination of short- and long-term problems that has hit most of the biggest United States (US) brands.

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

WHY IS THERE A SHORTAGE?

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

The problems began last year as the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in labour, transportation and raw materials – economy-wide issues that didn’t spare the formula industry. Inventory was further squeezed by parents stockpiling during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Then in February, Abbott Nutrition recalled several major brands of powdered formula and shut down its Sturgis, Michigan, factory when federal officials began investigating four babies who suffered bacterial infections after consuming formula from the facility.

Abbott is one of only a handful of companies that produce the vast majority of the US formula supply, so their recall wiped out a large segment of the market.

A sign at a CVS pharmacy indicates a shortage in the availability of baby food. PHOTO: AP

WHAT IS IN BABY FORMULA?

Most formulas contain protein from cow’s milk that’s been altered to be easier to digest and enhanced with extra nutrients needed for growth and development.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets specific nutritional requirements, including minimum amounts of protein, fat, calcium and a number of vitamins. Formula makers achieve those levels by adding various sugars, oils and minerals. The formulas are designed to mimic breast milk, though studies have repeatedly shown better health outcomes for babies who are breastfed.

WHAT ARE RETAILERS DOING TO KEEP FORMULA IN STOCK?

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

Amazon said recently it is working to keep the 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 ARE SUPPLIES LIKELY TO IMPROVE?

Health regulators recently announced several steps designed to boost supply, including allowing faster importation of formula made overseas. Typically, 98 per cent of baby formula consumed in the US is made domestically, according to federal officials.

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

The company said its products have not been directly linked to the bacterial infections in children, pointing out that genetic samples collected from its factory did not match those found in several infants who got sick.

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 before new products hit store shelves.

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