National Infant Formula Shortage Has Shore Families Scrambling

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By Stefanie Jackson – When Abbott Nutrition, the largest U.S. supplier of powdered baby formula, temporarily closed one of its plants in Michigan and issued a recall in February, it led to a shortage that made a nationwide impact. Three months later, the plant is still closed and the baby formula shortage has worsened.

Leslie Shifflett, of Eastville, told the Eastern Shore Post that since her son was born this past December, it has continually become more difficult to find the hypoallergenic formula he needs.

Options on the rural Eastern Shore for buying baby formula are limited even without a nationwide shortage. “If you happen to go to the store the same week that … three other moms need your formula, then you’re up the creek,” she said.

Abbott Nutrition issued a press release on Feb. 17 announcing its voluntary recall of select powdered formulas sold under the brand names Similac, Alimentum, and EleCare, after the company received four consumer complaints related to infants who had consumed formula from the facility and later contracted bacterial infections. Two of the infants died.

The complaints were connected to two types of bacteria, Cronobacter sakazakii and Salmonella newport, according to the release. 

Cronobacter sakazakii is a foodborne pathogen that thrives in very dry places, such as in powdered baby formula. An infection of Cronobacter sakazakii can develop into a bloodborne infection called septicemia, which can lead to sepsis – inflammation that spreads throughout the body, potentially causing death.

Cronobacter sakazakii also can cause meningitis, inflammation of the membranes that protect the brain and spine, which also can be fatal.

Salmonella newport is a strain of salmonella that causes foodborne illness. Symptoms can include stomach cramps, diarrhea, and fever. A case of salmonella usually can be resolved without antibiotics but is sometimes fatal.

Infants are susceptible to these types of infections because their immune systems are not yet well-developed.

Testing at the Abbott facility in Sturgis, Mich., revealed evidence of Cronobacter sakazakii in some areas of the plant where there was no product contact. Neither Cronobacter sakazakii nor Salmonella newport was detected in any product, but Abbott proceeded with the recall out of an abundance of caution, the press release indicated.

Abbott regularly tests for these and other pathogens and all products must test negative before they are released.

The press release further noted Cronobacter sakazakii is commonly present in homes and emphasized the importance of proper storage, handling, and preparation of powder formulas.

Shifflett was concerned about the prolonged closure of the Abbott plant because “the bacteria that … made the babies sick was not even found in that factory, and they continued to hold that factory closed while we need … they need that ability to distribute.”

Her husband works in Accomack County and has had to search every store on his way home for formula, Shifflett said.

She discovered that Facebook was a good resource for finding formula. She’s had friends from other states, like Colorado, who have found her baby’s formula in their local stores and bought and mailed it to her.

Shifflett said, “We are fortunate we have the (financial) ability to do that, but there are so many moms on the Shore that cannot,” because they depend on the supplemental nutrition program Women, Infants, and Children or WIC, which provides vouchers that are used to buy formula from local retailers.

“It’s sad that these moms are … scrambling to feed their baby, and they don’t have the money themselves to go stock up on extra in case they get in a bind,” she said.

Her supply of formula for this month – more than a dozen cans – came from out-of-state, Shifflett said.

She added that breastfeeding isn’t an option for every mother. For example, the child may be adopted, like her son. Some mothers have to return to work and are unable to pump, and others are physically unable to breastfeed, she said.

After Abbott issued its recall, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) followed up in February with a press release providing instructions to identify recalled powder formula and noting the recall does not apply to liquid formula.

A container of recalled formula can be identified by looking at the seven- to nine-digit code on the bottom of the package – all three of the following must be present: the first two digits are a number from 22 to 37, the code contains K8, SH, or Z2, and the expiration date is April 1, 2022, or later.

The FDA advised caregivers not to dilute formula or feed babies homemade formula due to reports of infants who had consumed homemade formula and were hospitalized with low calcium levels.

The FDA stated that parents who get formula through WIC should not discard recalled formula but return it to the store for refund and exchange or call 1-800-986-8540 for help.

Families who currently do not participate in WIC but may qualify can find more information about the program by visiting www.signupwic.com 

The release referred caregivers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC website for more information on cronobacter and infant formula.

The FDA updated its press release May 16 to announce that it had issued guidance to infant formula manufacturers and temporarily will apply discretion, on a case-by-case basis, when enforcing its regulations for infant formula.

“This action is designed to increase infant formula supplies in the United States while protecting the health of infants, for whom infant formula is often the sole source of nutrition during a critical period of growth and development,” the FDA said.

The following day, May 17, Sen. Tim Kaine stated he was one of 30 senators who had sent a letter to baby formula manufacturers the previous week, urging them to increase production.

“The last thing we want is to have tainted infant formula on the market, but that’s putting a short-term challenge in place that’s really affecting a lot of families,” he wrote.

Since the letter was sent, Kaine reported three developments: Abbott agreed to resolve its safety issues and reopen its plant in a couple of weeks, the administration of President Joe Biden announced it will allow the import of baby formula to address the short-term supply challenge, and the administration will ease rules and regulations to address supply-chain issues.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin also weighed in May 17: “My administration remains engaged with industry leaders on their production capabilities, and the Virginia Department of Health is working to ensure that there are adequate supplies of baby formula state-wide. Additionally, my administration has asked the FDA to utilize all resources to get the U.S. plant back into production as quickly as possible. Simply put, acquiring baby formula shouldn’t be a challenge in the United States,” he said.

Jon Richardson, chief operating officer of the Eastern Shore Health District, shared a list of do’s and don’ts for mothers seeking help on social media during the formula shortage:

  • Do contact your baby’s doctor with any questions, especially if your child has diet restrictions or medical conditions. (The doctor also may have free samples of formula available, Shifflett said.)
  • Do call stores ahead to find out if the formula your baby needs is in stock.
  • Do look for formula in smaller markets and drug stores.
  • Do consider purchasing formula online from well-known, reputable distributors.
  • Do check social media support groups for help finding stores with formula in stock.
  • Do purchase a different type or brand of formula if your baby has no diet restrictions or major health issues.
  • Don’t purchase more than 10 to 14 days’ worth of formula at once to avoid hoarding and exacerbating supply issues.
  • Don’t buy formula online from private sellers or auctions, as there are no quality or pricing guarantees.
  • Don’t buy formula from overseas, as it is not approved by the FDA and may contain contaminants.
  • Don’t feed your baby homemade formula, watered down formula, or plant-based milks, as these lack adequate nutrition.

If a household supply of formula has run out, a baby who is 6 to 12 months old and has no diet restrictions or health problems may drink cow’s milk for a short period until more formula is obtained, Richardson said.

He also recommended pregnant women near their delivery dates to consider breastfeeding, as they likely will avoid the formula shortage.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner said via Twitter May 19 that the Senate had passed a bill allowing WIC to ease restrictions on the types of formula that can be purchased with WIC vouchers, because “all families deserve equal opportunities to feed their children.”

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