In the spring of 2022, parents around the country reported that they were unable to find baby formula on store shelves. As parents worried about how they would secure enough formula for their infants, questions circulated about what caused the shortage and what was being done to get formula back on store shelves. Here's what we were able to find out.
Is There a Baby Formula Shortage?
Yes, there is currently a baby formula shortage.
According to Datasembly, a company that monitors real-time purchasing trends, the out-of-stock rate for baby food formula was between 2% and 8% during the first seven months of 2021. The OOS rate started to see an uptick in July 2021 and has since increased to about 40%.
The out-of-stock rate for baby formula hovered between 2% and 8% in the first half of 2021, but began rising sharply last July. Between November 2021 and early April 2022, the out-of-stock rate jumped to 31%, data from Datasembly showed.
That rate increased another 9 percentage points in just three weeks in April, and now stands at 40%, the statistics show. In six states — Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Missouri, Texas and Tennessee — more than half of baby formula was completely sold out during the week starting April 24, Datasembly said.
Why Is There a Baby Formula Shortage?
While a number of factors contributed to the decreased supply of baby formula, a series of recalls in February 2022 exacerbated the problem. Abbott Nutrition, one of the leading manufacturers of baby formula, voluntarily recalled three types of baby formula after four babies were sickened after consuming the products.
The recall includes select lots of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare formulas that were manufactured at an Abbott facility in Sturgis, Mich. It comes after the Food and Drug Administration received four consumer complaints of bacterial infections related to the formulas.
Abbott said in a statement published to their website that the company was working closely with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to resume operations. The company, which also makes sports drinks and nutritional milkshakes, said that it would prioritize baby formula in order to ease the shortage.
Millions of parents rely on our formula to feed their babies. And we know that our recent recall caused additional stress and anxiety in an already challenging situation of a global supply shortage. We are working hard to help moms, dads and caregivers get the high-quality nutrition they need for their babies.
Abbott is working closely with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to restart operations at the Sturgis, Mich., facility. We continue to make progress on corrective actions and will be implementing additional actions as we work toward addressing items related to the recent recall. In the meantime, we are working to increase the supply of infant formula by prioritizing infant formula production at our facilities that provide product to the U.S. market.
FDA said in a statement:
"The FDA is working with Abbott Nutrition to better assess the impacts of the recall and understand the production capacity at other Abbott facilities that produce some of the impacted brands."
Brian Dittmeier, the senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, a nonprofit that works to provide nutritional assistance to women, infants and children (WIC), told the New York Times that the "unprecedented scope of this infant formula recall has serious consequences for babies and new parents."
In addition to these recalls, general inflation and supply chain issues have compounded the problem. Datasembly CEO Ben Reich said: "Inflation, supply chain shortages, and product recalls have brought an unprecedented amount of volatility for baby formula."
What is Being Done to End the Baby Formula Shortage?
The White House said that the FDA was working "around the clock" to fix the infant formula shortage. During a press conference, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said: "Ensuring the availability of these products is also a priority for the FDA and they’re working around the clock to address any possible shortage."
Psaki said the FDA was working with manufacturers to increase production, to optimize supply lines, and to prioritize infant formula over other products.
While manufacturers work to increase supply, several stores, such as CVS and Walgreens, have started to limit the number of products individuals can buy at one time. This could prevent people from stockpiling the products and causing the shortage to worsen.
These efforts may eventually lead to more baby formula on store shelves, but Datasembly's Reich didn't see a quick solution to this shortage. Reich said: "Unfortunately, given the unprecedented amount of volatility to the category, we anticipate baby formula to continue to be one of the most affected products in the market."
Carilion Children’s Section Chief General Pediatric Christopher Pierce told Virginia news outlet 10 News that parents in need of baby formula should talk to their babies' doctors about their options. Parents should avoid watering down formula, according to Pierce, as it may cause an electrolyte imbalance: "This is not just a lack of weight gain but just electrolyte imbalances. The classic story is overfeeding water to infants can even drive them into seizures."
Parents should also be wary of homemade recipes, as these concoctions may include too little, or too much, of certain nutritional elements. Katie Angottinot, a pregnancy nutritionist and baby-weaning expert, told Newsweek:
Infant formula is a controlled food created to meet the specific nutritional needs of babies. Trying to get the right balance of all those nutrients at home would be impossible.
"Too much protein could affect a baby's kidneys or too little calcium and vitamin D will affect their bones, for example."