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‘It is scary’ | Parents scrounging for baby formula amid nationwide shortage

Supply chain issues and a major recall earlier this year have lead to depleted supplies of baby formula nationwide, causing local parents to scramble.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — There’s a crisis impacting families across the nation as a serious shortage of baby formula has parents scrambling to find ways to feed their infants.

Sacramento-area mom Michelle Willard is one of them. She has a 3-month-old son who relies on formula.

“Over the last couple weeks, it has gotten to the point where we can no longer find the formula we need,” Willard said. “It’s extremely nerve-wrecking as a mother and not being able to find formula here in the Sacramento region to feed my child.”

ABC10 normally talks with Willard about economic development, as she’s the chief public affairs officer with the Greater Sacramento Economic Council. Right now, however, this mom of two and her husband are struggling to find the formula their baby Jackson needs.

“About every day, my husband and I either go on the Target app, Raley’s app, Safeway app, Walmart app and we’re constantly monitoring when a can of formula – Nutramigen – is in stock and then we instantly buy it through our app and then go to the store to get the can, and these are pretty small cans for $33 and they don’t last long,” Willard said. “We’re constantly having to do this, daily and weekly, to find formula to feed our son.”

She said her son’s body doesn’t process cow’s milk well, so they need a specific kind of formula and can’t just switch to whatever might be available.

Another local mom, Jenn Kistler-McCoy, has twin 11-month-old boys, who are now beginning to eat solid foods but still rely on formula for their nutritional needs.

“There’s been a couple of nights where I was driving around all evening just trying to find it because we had maybe enough for, like, one bottle that night,” Kistler-McCoy told ABC10.

Ongoing supply chain issues are fueling this nationwide shortage, along with a voluntary recall back in February of three popular brands of powder formula made by Abbott, which is a major manufacturer of formula in the U.S.

Those products were pulled following reports that two babies got seriously sick – and two others died.

Abbott said after testing and inspections – in partnership with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – it does not believe their facility is the likely source of infection.

Still, by late April, 40% of the national baby formula inventory was out of stock, according to retail analysis firm Datasembly. By the end of the first week in May, that shortage increased to 43% of the national supply.

As Dr. Alok Patel, pediatric hospitalist with Stanford Children’s Health, explains, “There's only a few manufacturers that are making the entire supply we see on grocery store and pharmacy shelves, and if one of those is not meeting demand, there is a bottleneck."

Kistler-McCoy said buying online has resulted in disappointment on more than one occasion for her family.

“You can order it sometimes and then it’ll be like, ‘Oh, your order is canceled because we’re out of it,’” Kistler-McCoy said. 

She said that even when she finds formula in-store at Costco, there's still issues to contend with. 

“We’re limited to buying two of them, which we go through really fast with two boys…We usually go through one within four days, so only being able to buy two at a time, it’s like we have to keep going back to Costco and buying more.”

ABC10 called the Sacramento County Women, Infants and Children (WIC) number to ask about formula availability. The person who answered told ABC10 that WIC doesn’t have formula to give out to families in the program – just benefits cards those families can spend at local stores. 

For parents shopping around, they recommend calling ahead before driving to a store to see if formula is in stock at that location. While it’s a frustrating process, they say it can at least save people some time and gas money.

In the meantime, some families are turning to sites like eBay to find formula.

“If people out there are turning to the Internet, auction sites or social media to get formula, you have to make sure that you're using an FDA-approved formula,” Dr. Patel said. “FDA-approved to make sure that it is safe, that it has the exact nutrient composition that young babies need.”

However, families without the resources to go shopping around find themselves having to make especially hard choices.

Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, told the Washington Post “he has heard of families starting solids earlier than they would prefer, turning to risky recipes for homemade formula, or diluting formula to make it last longer even though it might not provide the nutrition babies need.”

“My heart goes out to other moms and other families in the Sacramento region who maybe can’t afford or are having trouble getting access to this formula,” Willard said. “It’s expensive. I mean, just this month alone, I’m probably going to have to spend $1,000 on formula. With already-rising inflation, prices of gas and other commodities, it’s extremely challenging.”

That formula-maker, Abbott, said in a statement Wednesday that it is working with the FDA to re-open the plant that’s been shut down since the recall, and hopes to get that back up and running within the next two weeks. Once it opens, however, Abbott said that new formula will not reach store shelves for up to two months.

“We understand the situation is urgent,” Abbott said in a statement. “We know the recall has worsened an already existing industry-wide infant formula shortage in the U.S., and we've been seeing and hearing the stress and despair of parents who are facing empty shelves. We deeply regret the situation and since the recall, we've been working to increase supply at our other FDA-registered facilities, including bringing in Similac from our site in Cootehill, Ireland, by air and producing more liquid Similac and Alimentum. We also began releasing metabolic formulas that were on hold earlier this month at FDA's request to those who need these unique formulas.”

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