The baby formula shortage, explained

Several factors led to a baby formula shortage in the US. Now, the FDA is working to fix it as parents scramble.

A baby formula shortage is scary. They can’t exactly make themselves a sandwich, and breastfeeding isn’t always a reliable solution. How’d such a crucial item wind up so scarce?

In February…

… an FDA investigation into infections in four infants, two of whom died, led to Abbott Nutrition’s plant in Michigan, where traces of the bacteria Cronobacter sakazakii were found. This resulted in a recall of several of its brands while Abbott paused production.

It turns out, just four companies produce ~90% of all US formula and, among them, Abbott is responsible for about half.

This is partially rooted in WIC — a federal nutrition program that helps low-income families — which requires each state contract with just one manufacturer.

That domino fell against three more:

  • Formula sales boomed as pandemic shoppers hoarded in 2020. When sales fell back, manufacturers — unable to accurately predict demand — produced less, per The Atlantic.
  • More babies were born in 2022, increasing demand.
  • US regulations for baby formula are so strict that most European formulas are illegal (even though European babies are fine), and US buyers risk shipments seized at customs. The foreign formula the FDA allows often comes with a high import tax.

This all led to national out-of-stock rates of 40%+. Some parents were left scrambling, while retailers began limiting purchases.

What about breastfeeding?

Contrary to Bette Middler’s controversial tweet, it’s not always “free and available on demand.”

Some people don’t produce enough milk. Others — like those undergoing chemotherapy — can’t breastfeed. Some babies require special formulas or are adopted by parents who aren’t lactating.

Breastfeeding also costs an estimated $950/yr. in supplies, compared to $1.2k/yr. for formula — not including the mental and physical health effects or time spent doing it.

What now?

Abbott and the FDA reached an agreement to safely reopen the plant in as soon as two weeks, which would put formula on shelves in six to eight.

The FDA also announced “increased flexibilities” for foreign imports and formulas typically made for export in the US.

And more broadly, the crisis has some legislators calling for more scrutiny into the very consolidated market known as “Big Bottle.”

BTW: Poynter has compiled a list of resources and recommendations for parents here.

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