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Similac is back in production. Does that mean the baby formula shortage is over?

After six months of frantic searching for formula, parents are starting to believe the worst may be over. But the supply’s not back to normal yet

SHARE Similac is back in production. Does that mean the baby formula shortage is over?
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Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

When Julie Heglund surveys the shelf at her local grocer in Vero Beach, Florida, these days, she’s a lot less worried than she was just a month ago. She sees more options now for feeding her son Jeremiah, who’s 6 months old.

Just a month ago, when the Deseret News talked with the worried mom, Heglund described the process of finding elusive baby formula as a team sport during the ongoing shortage: Friends and family were watching store shelves and online listings to help her secure enough formula to keep Jeremiah sated and healthy.

“It’s getting a lot better,” Heglund texted in response to a Deseret News question Monday morning. “Some are still harder to find, but I’m seeing more on the shelves. Especially now that European formulas are being shipped in, there’s more variety and stock.”

The infant formula shortage that has had panicked parents scouring shelves for the past six months — Jeremiah’s entire life — has eased. But as Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the nonprofit National WIC Association, told The New York Times this week, “It all depends on geography and the retailer. There are some locations where the supply of infant formula is healthy and others where it is not.”

No one’s ready to declare the formula shortage of 2022 resolved. In many locations, Kroger, Walmart and Target are still limiting the amount of formula an individual can purchase. The federal government is still flying formula in from overseas. The popular brand Similac is still weeks from distribution. And parents are still buying extra formula when they find it in case something else goes wrong.

While the crisis unfolded quickly, catching many by surprise, resolving it is predicted to be a much longer process.

Formula for a crisis

Parents who’ve been prowling for formula have become painfully aware of how the shortage unfolded. The biggest formula manufacturing plant in America, Abbott Nutrition’s facility in Sturgis, Michigan, recalled formula early in the year after four infants who’d consumed its formula became sick; two died. Then cronobacter sakazakii bacteria was found in the manufacturing plant.

Abbott Nutrition points out that the bacteria that sickened the infants was never proven to come from its product and that the bacteria that was found was environmental; it was not found in formula. Others say a connection wasn’t disproven, either. But officials warn that cronobacter sakazakii is uniquely capable of living in powdered formula — or elsewhere, which makes it hard to track the source. The Washington Post reported this week that cronobacter is especially dangerous for very young babies who have not yet developed an immune system or are known to be immune-compromised. But reports suggest that many parents aren’t aware that canned formula is not sterile.

Given that supply chain issues were already a problem before the recall and some parents had also started buying extra formula for fear there’d be a shortage, in hindsight, a shortage seemed almost inevitable.

After the bacteria was found and concerns raised about hygiene and safety issues with the Sturgis plant, the facility was shuttered until the company could satisfy the terms set forth in a consent decree with the federal government. And just days after the plant reopened, a deluge of storm water led Abbott to close it again for cleanup and repair.

There are also other factors that contributed to the shortage, Lyman Stone, chief information officer for Demographic Intelligence, which forecasts and analyzes birth and fertility data for businesses, told the Deseret News.

His short list of contributors included panic buying and hoarding, a fluctuating number of births and a decrease in the number of women who breastfeed. The panic buying led families to buy more than they needed at the time, which reduced what they needed later, while depleting the stock. The fluctuating births in the pandemic indicated there was less need for formula so manufacturers made some adjustments. And the decrease in breastfeeding meant those babies would need infant formula. Together, those factors helped fuel what would become a crisis.

Boosting the supply

While the Heglunds and their friends and relatives were trying to find formula, Congress, the president, manufacturers and others were trying to plug holes in the supply.

This week, President Joe Biden announced the federal government’s 23rd Operation Fly Formula mission, this time bringing formula from an Australian manufacturer to Dallas, Texas, for distribution.

In two deliveries — one completed and one slated for Friday — more than 330,000 pounds of Bellamy’s Organic Infant Formula, which amounts to nearly 5 million 8-ounce bottles, will arrive. That product will be sold by retailers, while some of the formula brought in earlier from different manufacturers and countries was distributed through hospitals, doctors and clinics to meet the needs of infants who have allergies or otherwise require a specialized formula.

When the next shipment lands Sept. 16, the White House said that Operation Fly Formula will have imported the equivalent of about 90 million 8-ounce bottles of baby formula.

But importing formula isn’t the only step the federal government has taken. Early on, Biden invoked the Defense Production Act so that the materials and resources to make formula could be diverted from other manufacturers to the cause as needed. And the government has provided guidelines that will allow manufacturers from outside the United States to work with the Food and Drug Administration to “safely import” formula on a more permanent basis to keep a similar shortage from happening again.

Additionally, rules were loosened for the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program — a very heavy user of baby formula — so that parents could buy what they could find, rather than being constrained to certain types or brands.

Congress acted, as well, passing Sen. Mike Lee’s, R-Utah, FORMULA Act, which removes import tariffs on formula until the end of this year. That will encourage other manufacturers to stock America’s shelves and help keep costs down for consumers.

And other U.S. formula producers have been running their factories around the clock to produce as much baby formula as they can, in some cases bolstering their supply by importing formula they’ve produced in their own factories in other countries. American babies have been drinking formula made in Ireland, Australia and Mexico, among other countries.

In another sign that the formula shortage is easing, Abbott Nutrition announced that it had restarted production of its popular Similac formula in late August. By the company’s estimation, it will take six weeks to get the product to market.

The company said that production restarted even earlier on EleCare and other special formulas it makes and these brands will be ready to ship “in coming weeks.”

“We know that the nationwide infant formula shortage has been difficult for the families we serve, and while restarting Similac production in Michigan is an important milestone, we won’t rest until this product is back on shelves,” Robert B. Ford, chairman and chief executive officer at Abbott, said in the press release. “Making infant formula is a responsibility we take very seriously, and parents can feel confident in the quality and safety of Similac and other Abbott formulas. We are committed to re-earning the trust parents and healthcare providers have placed in us for decades.”

Still, the numbers say that the shortage isn’t over quite yet.

As The New York Times reported, “While the situation has improved since mid-July, the out-of-stock figure for powdered formula on store shelves in late August remained at 23 percent, still above the 10 percent it was before the recall and shutdown, according to the market research firm IRI.”