A new infant formula warning threatens to further strain already depleted supplies, leaving desperate parents scrambling.
The FDA announced Thursday that it was working with Abbott Nutrition to initiate a voluntary recall of certain lots of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare powdered infant formula after complaints that four infants became ill and were hospitalized in three states. formula.
Abbott’s internal records “indicate contamination of the environment by Cronobacter sakazakii and destruction of the product by the company due to the presence of Cronobacter,“, the FDA said in a statement.
“The retained samples of the formula tested negative for either bacteria and no product distributed tested positive for the presence of either of these bacteria, and we continue to test,” Ellen Wichman, a spokeswoman for Abbott, said in an email.
The warning and likely recall only heightens availability issues for parents who for months have found store shelves increasingly empty of formula as unexpected demand and labor shortages works disrupt supply.
Michelle Perruzzi, 30, a courtroom supervisor who records court proceedings and mother of two from Fairfield County, Connecticut, drives every day for four months between seven local stores to browse the shelves of the Alimentum formula for her 7-month-old baby, Alejandro.
“It was very difficult,” she said. “Every time we went to get it, the shelf was empty. If we were lucky, there were a can or two on the shelf.” The situation is all the more critical since since returning to work, she can no longer continue breastfeeding and Alejandro is allergic to certain types of infant formula, which further limits their options.
She’s made a habit of calling and texting out-of-town friends and posting in local parents’ Facebook groups. Once she found six cans for sale on Walmart. But by the time she typed in her credit card information, it was gone.
“That’s when I panicked the most,” Perruzzi said. “This is madness.”
Prior to the pandemic, stock-out levels of infant formula hovered around 5%, according to market research firm IRI Worldwide. Anything over 10% is cause for concern.
But infant formula stock-out levels quickly climbed to 25% in February from 11% in December, according to an analysis by consumer product data firm Datasembly commissioned by NBC News.
Ben Reich, CEO of Datasembly, said he reviewed more than 11,000 stores. “We looked at more than 200 infant formulas commonly sold at top 20 national and local retailers, including the top three national food retailers,” he said.
“In particular, for areas like Florida and New Jersey, the average is between 40% and 43%, which means a lot of empty shelves in baby aisles among a number of stores,” Reich said. .
In November and December, Enfamil issued an apology to customers complaining on Twitter about the shortages, saying that “due to high demand” some of its products would be out of stock for “an extended period”.
The Infant Nutrition Council of America, an industry trade group representing major formula makers, cited general supply chain issues affecting all manufacturers, particularly transportation, labor and and logistics.
“Infant formula manufacturers are actively working with suppliers, distributors, retailers and state agencies to ensure availability and access to infant formula, to quickly meet the needs of babies everywhere” , the group said in a statement.
The formula makers said the product is on the way. But retailers aren’t getting them to stores and shelves, The Wall Street Journal reported. Meanwhile, retailers say manufacturers may have difficulty sourcing raw materials and there are reports of stockpiling.
“Product supply challenges are currently impacting much of the retail industry,” said Matt Blanchette, CVS spokesperson. “We continue to work with our national brand baby formula suppliers to resolve this issue and we regret any inconvenience our customers may experience.”
Two brands alone account for 60% of the shortfall, Enfamil and Similac, according to Datasembly.
Abbott, the maker of Similac, has moved to 24-hour shifts and is making more formulas than ever, according to a spokesperson.
A spokesperson for Reckitt Benckiser Group, maker of Enfamil, said it was ramping up production and shipping 30% more product to meet the surge in demand.
“We are facing a very unusual supply and demand picture. Consumer demand in the IFCN (infant formula/infant nutrition) category in the United States has been particularly strong relative to births and historical consumption patterns,” spokeswoman Martinne Geller said in an email. mail.” There are several reasons for this, including some parents ensuring they have adequate stocks against a backdrop of wider concerns about supply chains.
In early February, Bloomberg reported that the company was considering selling the Enfamil division.
“Rising birth rates are going to drive up demand, it will be harder for companies to map” and keep production ahead of that curve, said Ryan Closer, director of supply chain collaboration. for the logistics company FourKites.
Hiring difficulties could also hamper production and distribution, Closer said.
“Job offers are everywhere. Undoubtedly if you go to restaurants, grocery stores, there are 2 out of 15 checkouts open, there is definitely a labor shortage. It could have a ripple effect on all of that,” he said.
There are a few things parents can try to circumvent the shortage. They can safely switch brands as long as the formulation is the same, dairy-based for dairy-based, Dr. Katie Lockwood, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told the show. TODAY”.
But she advised against switching bases, such as switching from soy to dairy. Lockwood also cautioned against diluting the formula, using an expired formula, or making your own.
“The formula is a complex product. It’s a very complicated balance to have enough water and nutrients,” Lockwood said. “Having too much extra water can be very dangerous for some children’s brains – and having too little can be dangerous. It really is a delicate balance that is best done by a chemist.
Parents can contact their pediatrician, who may be able to order a special shipment from the manufacturer. Or they can contact the company’s customer service department and try to request supplies directly. Donor milk, available from a milk bank or prescribing doctor, is another option.
Families can also try asking their local store manager when the formula is restocked and plan their trips on those days. Some families have also resorted to posting to social media parent groups, even those out of town, to arrange a deal or swap.
Women’s shelters, food banks and faith-based organizations that provide food aid may also have supplies.
Meanwhile, panicked parents like Perruzzi are at their wit’s end. She even called the local establishment dispensing the formula, only to find that the number was disconnected.
“I would pay $60, $80 a can,” rather than let her son go hungry, she said. “I would pay anything.”