Baby formula shortage: When will it end and what is New York investigating

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Illustration by Michelle Budge, Deseret News

A new poll shows the vast majority of American adults are worried about the baby formula shortage — and Food and Drug Administration officials say the crisis is unlikely to be resolved before July.

“My expectation is that within two months we should be beyond normal, and with a plethora,” Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf told a Senate health committee this week. “It’s going to be gradual improvement up to probably somewhere around two months until the shelves are replete again.”  

Meanwhile, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced Thursday that she’d sent cease-and-desist letters to 30 New York retailers her office accuses of gouging consumers on the price of formula, CBS News reported.

“New York’s price gouging statute prohibits merchants from charging excessive prices for essential goods or services during abnormal market disruptions,” according to a release from her office. And while she didn’t name suspected offenders, James noted they were a mix of brick-and-mortar and online stores, most in the New York City area.

The letters followed a request earlier in the month by James that people report gouging if they saw it.

Survey finds worries

The poll by Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, found no significant difference in views on the formula crisis based on political philosophy or party affiliation — just high numbers of worried folks.

It said that 86% of Democrats, 84% of Republicans and 83% of independents are either “very” or “somewhat” worried about the formula shortage as parents continue to scramble to try to find infant formula. The poll was conducted May 20-24 among 1,169 likely voters and has a margin of error is +/- 3 percentage points.

Respondents showed strong support for bringing in more baby formula from other countries “after the FDA ensures these products are safe” (82%) and for efforts by officials to crack down on price gouging (88%). More than 8 in 10 of those asked said they would favor expanding the list of baby formula products that low-income families are allowed to purchase with government food and nutrition benefits.

The level of concern found in the survey was very high, although most of the adults said they do not themselves have a child who drinks baby formula, either instead of or in addition to breast milk, the survey found. One in 5, however, said they or other family members had been looking for or had purchased formula during the shortage.

Between a quarter and third of those questioned said they’d asked people they know to help them find formula or had expanded the distance in which they searched for formula. Thirty-five percent said they’d switched to providing a child with more breast milk or only breast milk to keep him fed. And 1 in 5 said they’d transitioned their child to solid foods earlier than they would have without the shortage, the survey said.

Why a shortage?

Supply chain issues had already impacted the infant formula market before the crisis deepened earlier this year. In February, amid concerns its formula could be linked to a spate of illnesses and two deaths among infants, Abbott Nutrition issued a voluntary recall of formula produced at its Sturgis, Michigan, plant. That plant is the largest U.S. baby formula factory. No direct link has been found between the factory and infant deaths.

But inspectors did find a potentially serious bacteria, cronobacter sakazakii, in the manufacturing plant, though not in the product. That shut the plant down. Recently, Abbott Nutrition reached an agreement with the FDA to reopen the plant once terms of a consent decree have been satisfied, but Califf told lawmakers that will involve a long list of steps to correct problems there.

The plant is tentatively set to reopen on June 4, but Califf strongly hinted that date might be optimistic given how much has to be resolved. And Abbott Nutrition has said it will still take a few weeks to get formula to store shelves once the plan begins producing formula again.

The FDA has been criticized roundly for how it has handled the shortage and allegations that Abbott Nutrition had production problems. As the Deseret News earlier reported, Califf admitted his agency moved “too slow” after being delayed by a series of events that included a whistleblower complaint that was lost in the FDA’s mailroom and a spate of COVID-19 cases at the formula manufacturing site that led officials to agree to delay the inspection until workers were better.

Operation Fly Formula

The Biden administration has begun bringing in formula from overseas through its Operation Fly Formula, which the president said would use commercial and military aircraft airlift from elsewhere infant formula that meets FDA standards.

The first load came in last Sunday to Indiana by military cargo plane — a 35-ton shipment of hypoallergenic baby formula that was to be distributed not through normal retail channels, but by health care providers and others equipped to see it reaches children with medical needs who cannot use regular formula but require a specialty product.

A second load — also hypoallergenic — was to be distributed through the Nestle plant in Pennsylvania later in the week. The president has said more flights are coming.

At the same time, Abbott has been flying in some formula from its manufacturing plant in Ireland and other formula makers in the United States say they’re ramping up their production to boost the amount of formula available at retailers.

Biden has also authorized the use of the Defense Production Act to increase formula production. Under the act, supplies crucial to making formula will be diverted from other production efforts to the manufacture of baby formula.

Lois M. Collins

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