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Is panic buying contributing to the baby formula shortage?


The availability of baby formula is hitting a crisis point. Karli Brophy, mother of two, just scoured six stores in Las Vegas looking for formula to feed her newborn, and recently resorted to begging friends and family on Facebook to look for formula across the country for her. She has just two weeks’ worth of formula left for her baby.

“It’s really scary, because I’m unable to breastfeed,” she says. “The word I’d use is desperate.”

At retailers across the U.S., 43% of the top-selling baby formula products were out of stock as of the week ending May 8, according to Datasembly, which tracks baby formula stock at more than 11,000 stores. The biggest shortages were felt in Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, North Dakota, and South Dakota. About three-quarters of U.S. infants 6 months and older are fed at least some formula.

Under mounting pressure to solve the problem quickly, the Food and Drug Administration has suggested that the shortage is in part being driven by increased demand, noting that more formula was purchased in April than in January. Some experts suggest that parents are contributing to the problem, panic buying and stocking up when they see empty shelves. Think: toilet paper in 2020. 

“It’s just that there’s been increased demand because people are buying extra and stocking up at home,” Dr. Esther Chung, pediatrician at the University of Washington in Seattle, said late last month, “so I want to reassure everybody that there’s not a national shortage of formula.”

Walgreens, CVS, and Target have introduced limits on how much formula customers can buy, but panic buying is only one piece of the puzzle. Like many products, baby formula faced a squeeze due to supply-chain shortages. But in February the situation worsened when Abbott, the largest U.S. maker of formula, was forced to close one of its plants and recall several major brands over concerns of bacterial contamination. Four infants who consumed formula contracted bacterial infections, and two died.

Abbott Laboratories voluntarily halted production at its Michigan plant, which an FDA inspection deemed unsanitary, although product samples at the plant tested negative for the bacteria. Abbott issued a response to the agency on April 8 and has been making upgrades to the plant, according to a company statement released yesterday.

Abbott reported that within two weeks of FDA approval, it could reopen the Sturgis, Michigan, plant, yet it will take another six to eight weeks before new product is available on store shelves. The company says it is prioritizing production of infant formula and will more than double the amount of Similac Advance powder formula this year, importing it from a manufacturing facility in Ireland. “We are dedicated to doing everything possible to ensure parents and caregivers have what they need to feed their babies,” the company said.

Meanwhile, the issue is quickly becoming political. Two Republicans—Representatives Elise Stefanik of New York and Ashley Hinson of Iowa—sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf demanding answers on how the administration will fix the formula shortage. “The Biden administration must prioritize fixing supply-chain disruptions and getting baby formula back on the shelves,” Hinson told Fox News.

On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the FDA is “working around the clock” to handle the shortage. The agency is working with other major manufacturers of infant formula to increase supply. Califf noted in a statement: “We are doing everything in our power to ensure there is adequate product available where and when they need it.”

In the meantime, UW’s Chung cautioned parents against making their own formula with recipes found online, diluting formula to make it last, feeding children goat’s milk, or buying cans of formula from auction sites like eBay. She recommends parents of younger infants try off-brand formulas made in the U.S., and for older infants—around 6 months old—try incorporating pureed foods into their diets. 

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