by McKenna Ross, Las Vegas Review-Journal, May 13, 2022
They make calls to pediatricians’ offices, government agencies and nonprofits in search of infant formula. They check several stores in a day. They shop online or closely follow shipments to local grocers. They may even drive out of state to find a stocked retailer.
Nevada families are struggling to find their preferred brand of infant formula after a product recall pinched an already-tight supply chain nationwide.
“It’s been really stressful because everywhere you go, they don’t have it,” said Dahlia Motta, a Las Vegas mother of two children under a year old. “And then if they do have it, they’d tell you you can only have four or five cans. Hello, I have two kids. What’s five cans gonna do for me? Both of them go through a can and a half a day.”
Why it’s happening
National estimates say about 40 percent of America’s baby formula was out of stock as of last week, according to retail pricing data website Datasembly. The shortage is caused by a mixture of pandemic-related supply chain issues — which has caused intermittent outages for several months — and a voluntary product recall in February by a top manufacturer, Abbott Laboratories.
There’s no federal stockpile of formula, White House officials said this week. President Joe Biden spoke with retailers and manufacturers Thursday in an effort to address the problem. And, the Biden administration said it would cut red tape for manufacturers to produce formula more quickly, crack down on price gouging and increase imported formula supplies.
All the while, some retailers have limited the number of items a customer can purchase at a time, the Wall Street Journal reported. And Nevada WIC — the Women, Infants and Children nutritional services program that provides a debit-like card for approved foods and products, similar to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — added about 80 more formula options that can be purchased with WIC so families can purchase a different brand.
Nearly 12,000 infants are enrolled in WIC as of April, department officials said. About 86 percent of them have food packages that include formula benefits. In March, the WIC redemption rate for formula was 73 percent, according to the latest available data.
“We’re in a situation where some of the substitutions are not available because the whole market is suppressed with having one of the largest formula manufacturers out of commission and not having that product on the shelves,” WIC Program Manager Andrea Rivers said.
The shortage leaves parents scrambling — and sometimes panic-buying — for the critical nutrition source. Formula feeding is increasingly common as some parents are unable to produce milk, babies have milk allergies, the birth mother is not nearby or is sick, among other reasons.
“We always have to go to multiple stores or try to find it online just to be able to have at least a week or two’s worth at home,” said Bryan Garofalo, a Las Vegas father to a 5-month-old son.
Garofalo’s baby has been fed Similac formula since his first week of life to gain weight lost after birth and because he would not latch to his mother. Garofalo said he and his wife often find success in preordering no-contact pickup at retailers such as Target to purchase it while it’s marked as available online.
Henderson resident Jessica Pitts said she feeds her 5-month-old daughter a speciality formula because she had milk sensitivity and acid reflux after her birth. She usually buys about 13 cans a month — 10 of which she gets for free through WIC benefits — and has to follow shipments diligently to get her supply while it’s in stock.
“Most of the time you think, ‘OK, I just want to take what I can and leave the rest for other kids,’” Pitts said. “But in reality, you can’t have that mindset because if you leave those cans, your baby’s not going to eat because you’re not going to find them the next day.”
Motta, the Las Vegas mother of two, said she’s had trouble finding formula since November of last year. Both her children are allergic to milk, and she traveled to Utah to find the powdered product that worked best for her lifestyle.
The problem is particularly concerning because of the lack of alternatives, Motta said.
“It’s really frustrating because I don’t know if I’m going to be able to find any, and if I don’t find any, it’s always in the back of my head,” she said. “Well, he’s a hyper-allergenic baby. If I don’t find it, what am I going to feed him?”
Another stressor is the product recall, Pitts said. Abbott Laboratories closed a plant in Michigan, where Similac and other brands were made, several months ago after a germ that can be deadly in infants was detected in the plant but not the products.
The Food and Drug Administration is investigating consumer complaints related to four hospitalizations after the infants were fed powdered baby formula made at the plant.
“I told my husband I feel so bad. I wish I (could) breastfeed,” Pitts said. “I would not be going through this issue if I was just able to produce milk. That guilt of not being able to give your daughter milk, something your body should naturally produce, and you’re wondering, what are they putting in my formula?”
What to do
Infant care officials recommend speaking to your child’s pediatrician to find appropriate solutions. Some offices may have trial sizes to share.
Others recommend checking multiple stores or switching brands, so long as the ingredients are safe for the child.
If possible, mothers can consider breastfeeding to reduce reliance on formula. Groups such as La Leche League of Nevada offer phone support and classes on breastfeeding and re-lactation for mothers who stopped breastfeeding but want to restart. More information is available at 702-822-2229 or at lalecheleaguenv.org.
Baby’s Bounty, an infant care nonprofit, will distribute one can of Similac formula per infant at a diaper bank next week, Executive Director Kelly Maxwell said. Eligible families should preregister for the May 18 event at 3400 W. Desert Inn Road, #8, at babysbounty.org.
Though the nonprofit does not specialize in nutrition, Maxwell said the organization has received increasingly frequent calls from parents searching for products. She’s worried about how some parents may try to get around a low supply, such as diluting the formula with water or cow’s milk — a process that’s unsafe for the baby.
“I’m nervous for the kinds of solutions that parents might come up with,” Maxwell said. “Well-meaning parents trying to do what’s best for their child may make some mistakes that could be deadly.”