An infant formula shortage that began months ago is reaching crisis proportions in the United States as a combination of supply chain issues and a major recall make it difficult or impossible for many parents to obtain the product.
The shortage has prompted retailers to limit the amount of infant formula individuals can buy, to deter hoarding. It has also put enormous pressure on social service programs such as the Special Federal Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known by the acronym WIC.
“The unprecedented scope of this infant formula recall has serious consequences for babies and new parents,” said Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, in a statement provided to VOA. “Manufacturers’ assurances that production has increased has yet to translate to new products on the shelves. Every day that this crisis continues, parents become more anxious and desperate to find what they need. to feed their infants.
Some health departments said they have, with few exceptions, been able to keep infant formula in stock for WIC recipients.
In an email exchange with VOA, a spokesperson for the District of Columbia Health Department said, “Since the beginning of the national infant formula shortage, DC Health has been working with its formula supplier WIC, its stores of local retail and its WIC beneficiaries…to ensure that all families receiving DC WIC benefits have continued access to formula Although there have been occasional shortages of formula at some stores, DC Health and its partners WIC beneficiaries help DC WIC families, and currently those families are able to purchase a range of infant formula using their WIC benefits.”
A crisis with multiple causes
The supply of infant formula began to become unstable in the second half of 2021, according to Datasembly, a company that tracks sales at grocery stores and retail stores. In the first half of last year, out-of-stock rates for infant formula remained stable at between 2% and 8%, the company found. As the year progressed, however, rates began to climb, ending the year at over 15%.
The growing shortage in the United States has been mainly attributed to various supply chain issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Rates rose sharply in February after Abbott, one of three companies that produce virtually all infant formula in the United States, announced a voluntary recall of its products after discovering dangerous bacteria in one of its manufacturing plants.
The Abbott plant was closed and as of Thursday had still not received permission to resume production.
In early April, Datasembly reported stock-out rates of over 30%. By the end of last week, the rate had jumped to 43%.
Few import options
When US domestic production of critical goods is disrupted, the natural reaction of market participants is to import foreign-made goods to meet demand. But with infant formula, it’s not that simple.
The Food and Drug Administration’s rules regarding infant formula are so strict that almost all formulas made overseas cannot be legally sold in the United States. This includes preparations that meet the standards for sale in the European Union and in developed countries such as Canada and Mexico.
Abbott, which has an FDA-certified manufacturing facility in Ireland, air-ships formulas from the country daily, but the volume does not meet requirements.
Increase difficult production
Converting other food manufacturing facilities to produce infant formula is not feasible because it poses an unacceptable health risk, the FDA said in a statement.
“It is important to understand that only facilities that are experienced and already manufacturing substantially complete nutritional products are able to produce infant formula that would not pose significant health risks to consumers,” the agency said.
The FDA is aware that parents nationwide are struggling, Commissioner Robert M. Califf said in a statement.
“We do everything in our power to ensure that there is an adequate product available where and when they need it,” he said. “Ensuring the availability of safe, single-source nutritional products like infant formula is of the utmost importance to the FDA. Our teams have worked tirelessly to resolve and mitigate supply issues and will continue to do all that is in our power to ensure the production of safe infant formula.”
White House announces actions
On Thursday, the White House announced that President Joe Biden’s administration was taking several steps to ease the crisis.
The administration said it will work with states to relax the rules that WIC participants follow when purchasing infant formula. The program generally requires them to use WIC funds to purchase specific types of preparations and in packages of a specific volume. Relaxing those rules will help reduce stress for many families, the administration said.
The White House said it would ask the Federal Trade Commission to “crack down” on any company taking advantage of the shortage to raise prices to “unfair” levels.
Finally, the administration said that in the coming days, the FDA will announce measures to make it easier to import infant formula from other countries.
Congress gets involved
In Congress, Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Wednesday his committee would investigate the formula shortage this month.
“The objective of this hearing will be to better understand the causes of the shortage, what has been done to increase production and supply so far, and what still needs to be done to guarantee access to a safe formula across the country,” Pallone said. .
While Pallone praised the Biden administration’s actions, the committee’s top Republican, Washington State Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, criticized the White House for being slow to respond.
“We’re asking the questions. We’ve been sounding the alarm to President Biden for months,” she said. “We’ve seen empty shelves. We’ve seen rising costs for families.”
She added: “On behalf of every parent and carer who doesn’t know if they will be able to feed their children, we need answers and we need accountability.”
Some people involved in the WIC program question the wisdom of allowing a system to persist in which only a few companies supply something as vital as infant formula. They also question the tactics of infant formula manufacturers, which provide free samples to new mothers, which many see as discouraging breastfeeding.
“As a country, we need to carefully consider how we got to this point,” said Dittmeier of the WIC National Association.
“The infant formula industry is highly concentrated, with only three companies bidding for contracts in the WIC space,” he said. “For decades, this small number of manufacturers have been allowed to target new parents in hospitals and other settings, undermining public health efforts to promote breastfeeding.
“These tactics are encouraged by policies that do not help new mothers continue breastfeeding, including the more than 9 million women who work in jobs that do not have legal protections for breastfeeding or breastfeeding. expression.”
He added: “Every day we hear of parents who are hurt, angry, anxious and scared. Their babies’ lives are at stake. It’s time for answers and accountability as we all work to improve supplies and ease the concerns of parents enduring this national crisis.