A severe baby formula shortage in the US has sparked a national crisis, as retailers implement purchasing limits and desperate parents hunt for hours to find vital supplies.
The shortages – which are piling further pressure on the Biden administration already facing public anger at soaring inflation – have been blamed on pandemic-related supply chain delays and labour shortages, made worse by the temporary shuttering of the country's largest infant formula plant in February.
Out-of-stock rates for major brands are now at 43 per cent nationwide, according to data collection agency Datasembly, and in six US states that figure is 50 per cent or higher.
In San Antonio, Texas, 56 per cent of supplies were out of stock as of Tuesday, the highest shortage in the country.
One mum, Maricella Marquez, told The New York Times she had been calling suppliers all over the state to ask about any new shipments for her three-year-old daughter, who suffers a rare allergic oesophageal disorder and needs a special brand.
"Right now they are out of it, completely," she said. "I'm desperate."
And it has been going on for months, according to Sara Khan, the mother of three children aged 10, seven and six months.
"I've known about this issue for almost seven months," she told AFP. "This did not happen overnight."
Ms Khan described the struggle to find just a few bottles of formula, and the distress at being faced with empty shelves at pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens or supermarket Target, whether in Washington or the surrounding area.
She has so far managed thanks to family and friends, who send her bottles of formula from Boston, New York and Baltimore when they find them.
"It's horrible, terrifying," she said, adding that she even ordered formula from Germany.
The situation took a major turn for the worse on February 17 when, after the death of two infants, manufacturer Abbott Nutrition announced a "voluntary recall" for formula made at its factory in Sturgis, Michigan – including Similac, a brand used by millions of American families.
A subsequent investigation cleared the formula, but production has yet to resume.
People have suggested she try other brands, but "that's not how it works", Ms Khan said. The formula has to taste good and not cause any problems such as constipation to the individual children.
And in addition to supply issues, parents are struggling to keep up with costs, as online sellers have doubled or even tripled their prices.
Earlier this month, Google searches for the phrase "how to make homemade formula for babies" spiked more than 120 per cent – sparking warnings from medical experts.
Robert Califf, head of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), highlighted the problem in a statement released on Tuesday.
"We recognise that many consumers have been unable to access infant formula and critical medical foods they are accustomed to using," he said. "We are doing everything in our power to ensure there is adequate product available where and when they need it."
Two months until new supply
On Wednesday, Abbott Nutrition said it "deeply" regrets the situation and finally provided a timeline for when new stock from its shuttered Sturgis facility could hit store shelves in the US – at least two months.
"We understand the situation is urgent – getting Sturgis up and running will help alleviate this shortage," the company said in a statement.
"Subject to FDA approval, we could restart the site within two weeks. We would begin production of EleCare, Alimentum and metabolic formulas first and then begin production of Similac and other formulas. From the time we restart the site, it will take six to eight weeks before product is available on shelves."
The company said since the recall, it had 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".
The closure in February was sparked by an FDA investigation after four complaints that babies who consumed products from the plant became sick from bacterial infections. Two of the infants died.
The company said on Wednesday that "after a thorough review of all available data, there is no evidence to link our formulas to these infant illnesses".
Pressure has been building on the FDA to do more to address the shortage.
When asked about the timeline for when Abbott's Sturgis plant might reopen, an FDA spokesperson told Fox News on Wednesday the agency was "continuing to work diligently to ensure the safe resumption of production of infant formula at Abbott Nutrition's Sturgis, Michigan facility".
"The plant remains voluntarily closed as the company works to rectify findings related to the processes, procedures and conditions that the FDA observed during its inspection of the facility from January 31 to March 18, 2022, which raised concerns that powdered infant formula produced at this facility prior to the FDA's inspection carry a risk of contamination," the spokesperson said.
Abbott Nutrition said that it has been making updates to the Sturgis plant, such as installing new sanitary flooring. It is unclear whether that work is complete.
'Babies are starving': Biden slammed
The formula crisis has become deeply politicised.
Republicans have used the shortages to attack US President Joe Biden, with many questioning why American taxpayers are sending another $40 billion to Ukraine.
"Biden is more concerned with sending billions of [dollars] to Ukraine than he is about baby formula shortages here in the United States," Kentucky Republican Congressman Thomas Massie wrote on Twitter.
Conservative social media influencer Ashley St. Clair said, "Babies are starving because of United States formula shortages but at least we got free crack pipes, billions of dollars sent to Ukraine, TikTokers paid to funnel Biden propaganda, $30,000 a month for Secret Service to protect crackhead Hunter Biden in Malibu."
Daily Wire host Matt Walsh wrote, "Our nation is ravaged by inflation and now we're running out of food for our babies. DC has decided that now is the best time to ship 40 billion dollars to a corrupt foreign government. These people are simply just evil. Traitors. They hate this country and they hate you."
Speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives, Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz said, "Last night this House approved $US40 billion for Ukraine, as American families go without baby formula. To put that in context, Biden's budget calls for $US15.3 billion for Customs and Border Patrol. So apparently Ukraine is more than twice as important as our homeland."
Stephen Miller, a former senior adviser to former president Donald Trump, argued there would "of course be no formula shortage if 45 were in office".
"But pretending there was, he'd have instantly issued EO [executive order], brought formula CEOs to Oval Office for public meeting, held Cabinet meeting to break all logjams, told FDA head fix or be fired, made all staff work overtime till SOLVED," he wrote on Twitter.
Former Navy Seal Robert J. O'Neill asked, "How much baby formula could we buy with $US40 billion. I'm betting it's a lot."
Many seized on comments by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who quoted from the Bible in justifying the latest aid package.
"When you're home thinking, what is this all about, just think about, 'When I was hungry, you fed me,' from the Gospel of Matthew," she said.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald commented, "The Gospels teach that Congress should send $US40 billion more to Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and CIA to fuel the war in Ukraine. The whole 'you fed me' shtick seems particularly tone-deaf given the suffering of Americans with inflation, poverty, inability to buy baby formula, etc."
White House 'working around the clock'
Speaking to reporters on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked what steps the Biden administration was taking to address the crisis.
"Well, let me first say, as you know, but the FDA issued a recall to ensure that they're meeting their obligation to protect the health of Americans, including babies, who of course were receiving or taking this formula and ensure safe products are available, that's their job," she 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. That includes working with major infant formula manufacturers to ensure they're increasing production … working with the industry right now to optimise their supply lines, product sizes, to increase capacity and prioritising product lines that are of greatest needs."
But on Wednesday, White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was unable to say who was co-ordinating the administration's response to the baby formula crisis.
"It's something certainly we've been tracking, ensuring infant formula is safe and available for families across the country is a top priority to the White House and this administration," she said on board Air Force One, describing the situation as "urgent".
Ms Jean-Pierre said the FDA and the White House were "working 24/7" to get more supply on shelves, and "right now consumers should be able to find general powdered infant formulas in stores".
"Who's running point on the formula issue at the White House?" a reporter asked.
"I mean, at the White House, I don't know," she laughed. "I can find out for you."
Commenting on the clip, Georgia Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene wrote, "When American mothers are crying in grocery stores and can NOT find baby formula, this should be the only thing everyone is working on. Food security IS national security, and we have a baby formula crisis."
New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz slammed the White House for not appearing to take the issue seriously enough.
"Does anyone at the White House have small children?" she wrote. "Do they understand the desperation parents are feeling right now? How much longer can the President of the richest country in the world stay quiet about hungry babies?"
Meanwhile, as the crisis continues for desperate parents of young children, Congress is looking to get involved.
House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, New Jersey Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone, announced on Wednesday that his panel will hold a hearing regarding the formula shortage, saying in a statement that the national shortages "are increasingly alarming and demand Congress' immediate attention".
The hearing is slated for two weeks from now on May 25.
- by Frank Chung, news.com.au