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Why is there a formula shortage?

The 2020s have brought so many challenges that parents never expected to face. Most recently is the 2022 US formula shortage. This spring, parents have faced an unprecedented formula shortage – and unprecedented stress levels. At the beginning of May 2022, 40% of formula was out of stock on US shelves. By the end of May, out-of-stock rates had surged to 70% nationwide. But why is there a formula shortage in the US right now?

What caused the 2022 formula shortage?

The first answer is a familiar culprit: COVID-19. The pandemic led to global supply chain issues and labor shortages. At the beginning of the pandemic, many families understandably panic-bought large quantities of formula to stockpile during the lockdown period. This led to big fluctuations in the supply chain, all while the national birth rate increased (hello, pandemic babies!). 

The second answer is: a major recall. In February, one of the nation’s largest formula producers, Abbott Nutrition, recalled several of its powdered baby formula products, including Similac, Alimentum and EleCare manufactured in Sturgis, Michigan. The recall came after the death of two infants who had ingested Abbott formulas due to a suspected Cronobacter bacterial infection. This had a major impact on the supply chain, Abbott was responsible for producing about 40% of the nation’s formula. With this supplier out of the game, parents had to turn to other brands, further straining the industry that was already struggling to keep up with demand. 

When will the formula shortage be over?

On May 16th, Abbott and the FDA came to an agreement to re-start production at the Sturgis facility. Finally on June 4th, production began again, and Abbott leaders expected to be back up to full production in six to eight weeks. Parents were hopeful that the formula shortage would be over by mid-July. However, on June 16th, severe flooding forced the plant to close again. This setback could lengthen the formula shortage several more weeks. 

In the meantime, the FDA has also been trying to accelerate the import of overseas formulas. The FDA has stringent nutrition content and labeling guidelines for infant formulas. Due to the shortage, the FDA has eased regulations to make import of overseas-produced formula more possible. In late May, the first flights of specialty infant formula were imported to the US to help ease the shortage for infants most in need. 

Unfortunately, at this time due to complications with recent flooding and no sure solutions from importing, we don’t know just how long this formula shortage will last. 

How can parents cope during the formula shortage?

Babies need to eat. If your baby relies on formula affected by the shortage, this is an incredibly stressful time. Here are suggestions from the US Department of Health & Human Services on what to do (and what not to do) to keep your baby safely fed:

  • Find Safe substitutes: with your pediatrician’s OK, try a different brand of formula. Here is a list of comparable formulas to help parents determine which brands might be a suitable alternative for their baby.
  • Try formula made in another country: The FDA has allowed these formula companies to market their products in U.S. stores. Be sure to pay close attention to preparation guidelines as units of measurement may need to be converted to ensure proper preparation. 
  • Use donated milk: Milk banks across the nation provide screened, pasteurized breastmilk for hospitalized and healthy infants. Since milk banks are stressed now due to the formula shortage, your local milk bank may not have milk to spare for healthy infants. Donated milk from friends or through the internet is not recommended due to unknown infection, medication, or drug status. However, milk sharing through trusted friends and family is as old as time and parents who have this option may decide it is the best way to feed their babies during the formula shortage. 
  • Talk to your pediatrician about short-term options: for babies six months and older, short-term (a few days to a week) use of cow or soy milk may be a suitable option in dire circumstances. Only introduce these options with your pediatrician’s OK if you cannot source safe formula or donated milk for your baby. 
  • Submit an urgent request for specialty formulas: If your pediatrician deems that your baby needs medical specialty or hypoallergenic formulas, you may be able to submit an urgent request to Abbott nutrition. 
  • If you are breastfeeding and supplementing with formula, a lactation consultant may be able to help you with increasing supply through improved latch, pumping, and galactogogues.  

This can be a deeply anxious time for parents. You have to keep your baby fed, but desperate times don’t call for ALL desperate measures. Please avoid the following:

  • Do not water formula down. Watering down formula can cause nutritional deficits and serious health problems such as seizures. 
  • Do not prepare homemade formula for your infant. Homemade formulas can cause severe illness due to nutrition imbalances or contamination. 
  • Do not use expired formula. Expired formula can cause illness and/or lack nutritional value. 
  • Do not buy more formula than you need. Stockpiling formula is tempting, but leads to other babies not getting the nutrition they desperately need. The current recommendation is to not buy more than a 10-14 day supply of formula. 

Parents Need Support

Parents need support now more than ever. Raising a baby during a pandemic and a nationwide formula shortage is incredibly stressful. If you need help finding formula or donated milk for your baby, here are further resources:

WIC: The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant, and Children provides formula, breastfeeding assistance and nutrition supplements to pregnant women, postpartum women, infants, and children up to age 5. 

Human Milk Banking Association of North America: Find a milk bank or donor breastmilk. 

Call 211: Call 211 24/7 for help finding community resources.