Is the US Baby Formula Shortage Finally Taking a Turn?

By Published On: July 14th, 2022

Baby formula production has once again resumed at Abbott’s Michigan plant after months of delay. This is what we know and how we got here.

Parents across the nation are still struggling to find baby formula after a national product recall in February led to a months-long closure of the Abbott formula plant in Sturgis, Michigan.

The closure has kept store shelves bare, and caregivers panicked, as the search for proper infant nutrition has lingered. For many parents, the shortage has impacted their feeding journeys, their wallets, and their sanity. 

Rachel Temple, a mom of 11-month-old twins in Connecticut, says she’s had to switch her twins’ formula a total of four times in the last few months. The transitions have been so stressful that she’s now switching her babies from formula to whole milk a month early. 

The latest data shows that 43 percent of U.S. baby formula is still out of stock, with states like California, Missouri, Minnesota, Nevada, Montana, Louisiana, Arizona, and Utah experiencing shortage rates over 80 percent as of late May.

The shortage is particularly difficult for parents of children who have dietary restrictions and intolerances, such as a dairy allergy, or a preemie requiring a high-calorie formula. Ashley Benton, a single mom in Texas, knows this struggle all too well.

“As a single mother, I am on WIC. My son is on the most expensive amino acid formula on the market, totaling $850 a month. Needless to say, I cannot afford that. Since the shortage started, I can’t find the formula he was on, and the three different amino acid [formulas] I’ve switched him to have slowly become unavailable one after another. I’ve been paying out of pocket because WIC only approves the specialty formulas with a prescription, and my pediatrician can’t keep up with writing new prescriptions every week because I can’t find the correct formula. I’ve given up hope that I can find the formula he needs and decided to put him back on hypoallergenic formula. His tummy has been upset, but he’s not starving. This has been the most stressful thing of my life.”

This echoed reality in households across the country has many parents holding their breath for relief that may soon be within reach. 

The Abbott Nutrition facility reopened July 1 and began production of its specialty baby formula EleCare, an Abbott spokesperson told CNS News. As the largest formula company in the nation, this news brings hope that inventory will quickly be restored to store shelves, putting an end to this formula shortage crisis.

A Timeline of the Formula Shortage

Problems began in 2021 with disruptions to labor numbers, raw materials and other factors stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. This combination led to supply chain issues everywhere, and unfortunately didn’t spare the infant formula industry.

Then in February of this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched an investigation into brands Similac, Alimentum and EleCare after four complaints of the environmental bacterium Cronobacter sakazakii was found in infants who consumed powdered formula products from the Abbott Nutrition facility in Sturgis, Michigan. All four babies were hospitalized and two tragically died. 

After the FDA concluded Abbott “did not ensure that all surfaces that contacted infant formula were maintained to protect infant formula from being contaminated by any source,” the plant shut down production and issued a recall. This recall in conjunction with halted production have further exacerbated supply chain issues felt from COVID-19 and continued to intensify the shortage.

In May, President Biden announced new actions to address the national infant formula shortage; through Operation Fly Formula, his Administration began its efforts to alleviate the shortage by importing formula via commercial aircraft to expedite the importation and distribution of product to store shelves. Additionally, this method of “bypassing regular air freighting routes will serve as an immediate support as manufacturers continue to ramp up production” here in the U.S.

So far, there have been 10 Operation Fly Formula missions, totaling 32 flights and carrying the equivalent of 19 million 8-ounce bottles of formula, according to the White House.

Around the same time, Abbott released a statement on June 4 announcing it was restarting production of specialty formulas at its Michigan Plant “after meeting initial requirements agreed to with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as part of the consent decree entered into on May 16.” The estimated release date to get formula products to consumers was for June 20.

Less than two weeks into production, a line of severe storms with heavy rain caused the Abbott Michigan plant to shut down once again due to flooding inside the facility. In a new statement, Abbott said it halted production of EleCare to assess storm damage and clean and re-sanitize the plant. This came as another significant blow to parents everywhere wondering when and how this shortage will eventually improve.

Thankfully, as of July 1, production of EleCare, a specialty formula for infants with severe food allergies and digestive problems, was restored, though the company has yet to disclose its reopening to the public. Production for other specialty and metabolic formulas is expected to follow the reopening, though no official date has been specified.

To stay informed on plant and production updates for Abbott Nutrition, visit their newsroom.

Attempts to Prevent Future Shortages

On July 6, the FDA released a joint statement detailing the development of a new framework for continued and expanded access to infant formula options for parents and caregivers in the U.S.

During the Abbott plant shutdown, baby formula manufacturers in other countries stepped in to ease the effects of the crisis by selling their products in American stores—and many want to stay.

The FDA announced that it plans to grant long-term authorization to some of these companies to continue selling their infant formula in the U.S. in hopes of preventing future formula shortages.

Many of the companies providing these formula products have expressed interest in continuing to serve the American market permanently. For some companies, the agency’s flexibility has resulted in their ability to use a greater breadth of their existing, global manufacturing footprint, creating more resiliency in the U.S. infant formula supply chain and reducing the risk of reliance on too few production facilities supporting the United States,” according to the statement.

More than ever, the need to strengthen the formula market in the U.S. must be a top priority, as we have seen the fragility of the supply chain when faced with unfortunate compounded circumstances. Through continued efforts from the FDA and the reopening of Abbott’s Michigan plant, let’s all hope this formula shortage will finally be put behind us, and that we’ll be better prepared for the future.