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What Tampa Bay needs to know about the baby formula crisis

There are signs of progress, but parents will likely be dealing with the shortage for weeks.
Shelves typically stocked with baby formula sit mostly empty at a store in San Antonio on May 10. Parents across the U.S. are scrambling to find baby formula and will likely continue to do so in the weeks to come.
Shelves typically stocked with baby formula sit mostly empty at a store in San Antonio on May 10. Parents across the U.S. are scrambling to find baby formula and will likely continue to do so in the weeks to come. [ ERIC GAY | AP ]
Published May 24

The nation’s parents are in the midst of a baby formula shortage that may continue for weeks.

There are signs of progress: The shuttered plant at the heart of the crisis will reopen in the coming weeks, and formula is being airlifted from Europe to the United States.

But it could still take a while for store shelves to be filled again, which means parents must continue their search for formula. Here’s what you need to know about the situation:

• • •

Why is there a shortage?

Before the shortage became a national crisis, baby formula had already been affected by the same supply chain volatility that has made other products scarce. Worker shortages, availability of ingredients and shipping costs all play a role, said Jill Roberts, an associate professor with the University of South Florida College of Public Health.

Another factor — the one that accelerated the crisis — was a voluntary recall of formula after several children became sick and two died, and the subsequent shutdown of the plant that produced that formula. The Food and Drug Administration has reported that it found deadly bacteria in Abbott Laboratories’ plant in Sturgis, Michigan, and that the plant has shown a pattern of contamination. The company issued a statement denying the existence of “conclusive evidence to link Abbott’s formulas to these infant illnesses.”

Last week, the FDA struck an agreement with Abbott on a plan to reopen the plant. But it could take weeks or months before the new formula reaches stores.

Related: Baby formula shortage is a nightmare for Tampa Bay parents
• • •

Why is formula so important?

Not all mothers are able to breastfeed. Many working moms can’t pump while at their jobs. Children with certain medical conditions or food allergies may be unable to consume breast milk, and in some cases, they may need specialized formulas that have become especially scarce during the shortage.

A baby born prematurely may need formula, even if their mother plans to breastfeed, because her body isn’t yet producing enough milk. Other medical circumstances — from HIV positivity to a history of breast surgery or chemotherapy — can also preclude mothers from breastfeeding.

Florida ranks near the bottom of all states in breastfeeding rates, which means many families here rely on formula to feed their young children.

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• • •
Pallets of baby formula are transfered to a truck after arriving May 22 on an Air Force C-17 at the Indianapolis International Airport in Indianapolis. The 132 pallets of Nestlé Health Science Alfamino Infant and Alfamino Junior formula arrived from Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
Pallets of baby formula are transfered to a truck after arriving May 22 on an Air Force C-17 at the Indianapolis International Airport in Indianapolis. The 132 pallets of Nestlé Health Science Alfamino Infant and Alfamino Junior formula arrived from Ramstein Air Base in Germany. [ MICHAEL CONROY | AP ]

How can I find baby formula right now?

For many moms across Tampa Bay, social media has become their guide. Parents use it to look for help or certain kinds of formula, offer up their own supplies or let others know which stores are well-stocked.

”We’ve got moms that are sharing pictures saying, hey, get over to the Target on Waters (Avenue) real quick,” said Tampa Bay Moms Group founder Steffany Rodriguez-Neely, whose 8,000-member private Facebook group has become a mutual aid site for moms in need.

Though generic brands are affected by the shortage, they may be easier to find than name brands; Rachel Dawkins, a pediatric medicine director at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, said she’s encouraging parents of healthy babies on traditional formulas to buy any available, non-recalled formula.

”While it might take a few days for a baby to adjust their taste buds, the baby should be just fine,” she said.

Grocery chains including Kroger, Walmart, Target and Rite Aid have some formula available for purchase online, but often limit quantities; the New York Times maintains a list of such options.

• • •

How much formula should I buy?

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests buying 10 days to 2-weeks worth of formula at a time during the shortage. The White House has called on retailers to institute purchasing limits to prevent hoarding, and major retailers such as CVS, Target and Walgreens have followed suit.

Though unopened baby formula often has a months-long shelf life, experts say parents should be aware of expiration dates: Formula’s nutritional content dwindles over time, and using expired formula could be dangerous, Roberts said.

• • •

Should I dilute the formula or make my own?

No. Experts say dilution is dangerous, especially over time, because it can cause malnutrition and electrolyte imbalance.

”(When) parents decide to dilute formula to make it last longer, babies fail to thrive and die,” Roberts said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics “strongly advises against” homemade formula, noting such recipes may leave out vital nutrients and have a higher risk of contamination.

• • •

What about imported formula?

The FDA announced that it is changing import standards to make it easier for manufacturers outside the US to ship formula into the country. Many European formula options meet federal nutrient standards, but oversight is important to make sure their safety isn’t compromised in transit, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

• • •

Are there alternatives to formula?

There are a few alternative options that could help in a pinch, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, but none should be used long-term.

Formulas designed for premature babies are safe for other babies for up to a few weeks. In an emergency, toddler formula and fortified soy milk can be given to infants who are close to a year old.

For babies over 6 months old, regular formula can be replaced with cow’s milk — no more than 24 ounces a day — though the Academy emphasizes that this shouldn’t become routine. Such a diet must also include iron-rich solid foods to guard against anemia.

• • •
Members of the public along with health worker watch as an Air Force C-17 arrives on May 22 carrying a plane load of baby formula in Indianapolis. The 132 pallets of Nestlé Health Science Alfamino Infant and Alfamino Junior formula arrived from Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
Members of the public along with health worker watch as an Air Force C-17 arrives on May 22 carrying a plane load of baby formula in Indianapolis. The 132 pallets of Nestlé Health Science Alfamino Infant and Alfamino Junior formula arrived from Ramstein Air Base in Germany. [ MICHAEL CONROY | AP ]

What is the government doing?

President Joe Biden on May 18 invoked the federal Defense Production Act to ramp up formula production and directed the Department of Defense to use its planes to import formula from outside the country.

A few days later, he signed into law the Access to Baby Formula Act, which allows WIC recipients to use those benefits to buy a wider array of formula. Another bill, the Infant Formula Supplemental Appropriations Act, which would supply $28 million in emergency funding to the FDA to address the crisis, passed the U.S. House of Representatives along party lines but has not received a Senate vote.

Florida’s government has not announced plans to address the crisis at the state level. State Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo wrote a letter to the FDA on May 12 in which he urged the reopening of the Abbott plant and asked for “open channels of communication” from the agency.

• • •

How can I find out if my formula was recalled?

Three brands of formula produced by Abbott — Similac, Alimentum and EleCare — have been recalled. According to the FDA, the following indicates a recalled product:

  • The first two digits of the code are 22 through 37.
  • The code on the container contains K8, SH, or Z2.
  • The expiration date is 4-1-2022 (APR 2022) — April 1 — or later.

A full list of recalled products is available on the FDA’s website.

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