Explained | Why is there a shortage of baby formula in the U.S.?

Shelves normally meant for baby formula lie empty at a store in Washington, D.C.

Shelves normally meant for baby formula lie empty at a store in Washington, D.C. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: The U.S. imported tonnes of baby formula from Germany on Sunday amid a massive shortage of the medical-grade baby food caused by production and supply-chain issues.

The shipment was flown in to Indiana—a hub for domestic producer Nestle—and will be tested for quality at a lab there before being distributed.

In a tweet, U.S. President Joe Biden said that more baby formula will be flown in from abroad under Operation Fly Formula.

What is baby formula?

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), baby formula is a special diet for infants, resembles human milk, and is suited as a partial or complete substitute for human milk. FDA classifies all babies under twelve months of age as infants.

In addition to laws and regulations governing food, the FDA has set nutrient requirements as well for baby formula. These specifications are listed in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) and include minimum amounts for 29 nutrients and maximum amounts for 9 of those nutrients.

The FDA does not approve a baby formula before it can be marketed. However, manufacturers must notify the FDA before marketing a new formula.

Why is there a shortage of baby formula in the U.S.?

The shortage of baby formula in the U.S. is not new. In 2020, the supply chain was severely disrupted due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Companies manufacturing baby formula have not recovered from it yet, and the closing of a factory owned by Abbott Laboratories aggravated the shortage.

In February 2022, Abbott Laboratories shut its manufacturing unit in Sturgis, Michigan. The unit was closed after it recalled baby formula products following a federal investigation. The investigation was triggered by bacterial infections found in four babies, two of whom died. Abbott has denied links between bacterial infections and its formula. At the time of the recall, Abbott Nutrition was the largest manufacturer of baby formula in the U.S.

According to Datasembly’s analysis, out-of-stock fluctuation of baby formula across the U.S. touched 30% in April 2022 and jumped to 40% at the end of the month. For the week ending May 8, the fluctuation was recorded to be at 43%.

Robert Ford, the CEO of Abbott, apologised to U.S. citizens in a Washington Post op-ed on Sunday morning. “We’re sorry to every family we’ve let down since our voluntary recall exacerbated our nation’s baby formula shortage,” Mr. Ford said. He also informed that the Michigan plant will reopen for production in June.

“The data collected during the investigation, genetic sequencing, retained product samples and available product from the four complaints did not find any connection between our products and the four reported illnesses in children. However, the FDA’s investigation did discover bacteria in our plant that we will not tolerate. I have high expectations of this company, and we fell short of them.”

Mr. Biden invoked the Defence Production Act last week to boost production of baby formula and authorised the defence department to fly in the product from foreign markets. The shipment that arrived from Germany was made possible under the Defence Production Act.

In a television interview, Brian Deese, Director of the U.S. National Economic Council, said that more baby formula will be available in stores “as early as this week”.

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Printable version | Jun 7, 2022 7:49:46 pm |