Federal agencies look for solutions to infant formula shortage

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Experts say there is no easy fix

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it is working to resolve the ongoing infant formula shortage that caused hundreds of thousands of parents to spend much of their weekend going store to store, only to find empty shelves.

“We are doing everything in our power to ensure there is adequate product available where and when they need it,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf.

Infant formula started getting hard to find in February after products manufactured at Abbott Nutrition’s Sturgis, Mich., facility were linked to possible Cronobacter sakazakii or Salmonella Newport infections in infants.

A recall was issued for Similac and other infant formula products on store shelves, and the factory was closed. It didn’t take long for the products to become scarce.

Soaring out of stock rate

Earlier this month, Datasembly reported that baby formula out-of-stock rates were soaring, hitting 31% in April. That compares to a rate of between 2% and 8% just a year ago.

Rob Kelley is a supply chain expert and a senior partner at Headstorm. He says the shortage is a result of the Abbott Nutrition plant shutdown, along with nagging supply chain issues.

“There has been a shortage of (ingredients) such as cow’s milk, as well as shortages in packaging and labor,” Kelley told ConsumerAffairs. “In addition to these supply shortages, domestic and global dairy demand for cow’s milk has far outpaced anyone’s projections from a year ago.”

Kelley attributes most of the shortage to a loss of production capacity. The plant shut down in mid-February, so millions of containers of infant formula that would have been produced under normal circumstances never made it to market.

“When producing a product at the scale we are talking about, it takes weeks to find the root cause of the contamination problem and receive approval from the federal government to begin production again,” Kelley said.

Not many alternatives

Patrick Penfield, director of Executive Education and Professor of Practice - Supply Chain Management at Syracuse University, agrees that the shutdown of the Abbott plant in Michigan has been the major cause of the shortage.

“Unfortunately, this is the only facility in the United States that produces Similac powdered infant formula,” Penfield told us. 

He notes that Abbott Nutrition, part of Abbot Laboratories, provides over 40% of the infant formula on the powdered milk market. 

“Because of their inability to produce product in Sturgis due to the plant shutdown, Abbot Laboratories has been shipping limited amounts of powdered formula from their Ireland facility and are also trying to produce other Similac infant formula products,” Penfield said.

Penfield said panic buying by anxious parents may be fueling the shortage. The Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance this week to help parents find the product for their children.

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