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Baby formula shortage impacting Quad-Cities families. What you need to know

Moline Dispatch and Rock Island Argus - 5/14/2022

May 13—Savannah Spicer, 29, only has one week's supply of baby formula left for her 6-month-old daughter, Madeline.

The Davenport resident and her husband have been scouring stores for their brand of baby formula — Enfamil Gentlease — in an effort to maintain a supply of much-needed nutrition for their infant.

When they can't find Enfamil, they try to purchase brands similar to what their baby eats since she is sensitive to any change in her diet.

"Our formula has been very hard to come by within the last month," Spicer said. "I have friends and family in multiple states looking to no avail. In the last two weeks I've been reaching out on Facebook to friends I have in Minnesota and friends and family in Texas who have been looking for me.

"In the beginning, I thought we'd be fine. The formula we used wasn't on the (health department) chart as a substitution, so I thought we had time," she said. "About a week or two ago I came face-to-face with the fact that I don't know when my formula will be available."

Spicer is one of many parents across the country scrambling to find baby formula as supply disruptions and a massive safety recall have swept many leading brands off store shelves. Baby formula is particularly vulnerable to disruptions because just a handful of companies account for almost the entire U.S. supply.

Industry executives say the constraints began last year as the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in ingredients, labor and transportation. Supplies were further squeezed by parents stockpiling during lockdowns. Then in February, Abbott recalled several major brands and shut down its Sturgis, Mich., factory when federal officials concluded four babies suffered bacterial infections after consuming formula from the facility. FDA inspectors later found lax safety protocols and traces of the bacteria on several surfaces. It's unclear when the Abbott plant might reopen.

Months of spot shortages at pharmacies and supermarkets have been exacerbated by the recall, leaving shelves empty. Retailers including CVS, Target and Walgreens have begun limiting purchases. Nationwide, about 40% of large retail stores are out of stock, according to Datasembly, an analytics firm that collects data from 11,000 locations.

The White House on Thursday announced a series of measures to address the shortage after President Joe Biden met with key retailers and manufacturers.

The steps include an effort to reduce red tape, speed formula production and make it easier to import formula from abroad, as well as a plan to crack down on price gouging nationwide.

"The Biden Administration must address the national shortage of infant formula immediately, increasing production and expediting distribution to the states," Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement. "Parents need the assurance that they can provide the basic necessities for their family, and nothing is more critical than infant formula."

State public health officials, pediatricians and health workers urged parents who can't find formula to contact food banks or doctor's offices. They also warn against watering down formula to stretch supplies or using homemade infant formula or other alternatives as they do not contain the vitamins and minerals that a growing infant requires.

Health officials respond to shortage

The Iowa Department of Public Health on Thursday encouraged Iowans to purchase what formula they need for the short term.

"This will ensure that all Iowans are able to access what they need, given the limited supply we are seeing nationwide," according to a news release.

As of Friday, stores like Target, Walmart, Walgreens and Hy-Vee on both sides of the Mississippi River had some formula available but plenty of empty shelves. Most stores were limiting how much formula customers can purchase.

Felicia Shaw, 25, and her 10-month old daughter spent part of Friday afternoon inside Target on Elmore Avenue in Davenport searching for the formula they use.

"I live in Cambridge, so we have been to every Walmart between Galesburg and Davenport to make sure we find some formula," Shaw said. "The (Henry and Stark County Health Department) has tried to help as much as they can.

"I'm enrolled in WIC (the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), so they try to give us updates. The best thing I found out so far is that Walgreens does carry some formulas. That has helped. But, basically, buying formula these days means a lot of time in the car searching around."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday urged states to take advantage of flexibilities the department is offering in the WIC program to help families have the formula they need. That's included allowing states to offer alternate sizes, forms and brands of formula and allowing stores to accept exchanges of formula purchased with WIC benefits.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Friday called on Abbot, the manufacturer at the center of the recall, to redouble its efforts to ensure WIC participants have access to safe formula, especially those who rely on specialty formulas produced by Abbott.

WIC supports the purchase of formula for mothers and families of young children.

"We're acutely aware that the ongoing recall has left many parents and caregivers concerned about access to formula and how they will feed their babies," Vilsack said in a statement.

"Our team is committed to the health and safety of all Americans and is calling on states to act immediately to offer maximum flexibility, information and support to WIC participants," he said. "Meanwhile, USDA will continue the work we started in February, working not only within our department but across the federal government, suppliers and partners to end this infant formula crisis as quickly as possible."

WIC enrolled families who need assistance finding formula should contact their local WIC clinic. If they are unable to contact their community clinic, they can call 1-800-532-1579.

Any Iowan seeking breastfeeding support can contact the WIC clinic in their community or contact their infant's health care provider.

'I'm in pre-crisis mode'

While Shaw finished looking over the available formula at Target, a man held his phone close to his face and tried to match the ingredients of the available formula with what he needed.

"I'm trying to get formula for my grandson," the man said. "I've been to six stores so far, and nobody has what we need."

The man sounded resigned and frustrated. It is a feeling shared by many. So, too, is growing sense of concern.

"I'm in pre-crisis mode. We're managing, but it's getting there because the small cans of Enfamil Gentlease only last me two to three days," Spicer said. "I've called the pediatrician, but the pediatrician is out.

"I have a week's supply right now and then I hope that new (substitution) brand works. If it doesn't work, then I have a very uncomfortable, colicky baby."

The Scott County and Rock Island County health departments are sharing a color-coded chart to help parents determine what store brand would be similar to what they currently feed their infants.

The Rock Island County Health Department posted further guidance on its Facebook page.

"Look for similar color schemes and words. All infant formula legally sold in the United States must meet the same FDA standards for quality and nutrition," the Health Department wrote. "Store brands have the same nutrition as brand names. These formulas can't be purchased with WIC benefits."

Spicer said she'd heard the rumors about bypassing formula shortages by purchasing it from Canada through Amazon. And while it may be available from Canada, she quickly discovered it would cost her $100 for a can of formula.

"People say, 'just breast feed,' but they have clearly never had to deal with those issues," Spicer said. "No matter what, she won't go unfed.

"It's frustrating. You hear that it's supply-chain issues but as a mom, that reason doesn't cut it. Every day the shelves are more and more bare."


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