After months of empty store shelves, the U.S. is still facing a nationwide shortage of baby formula.
In fact, a little over 20% of formula products were out of stock in the six weeks leading up to July 24, according to data collected by market research firm Information Resources Inc. (IRI).
There is a pretty clear indication of what—or who—is partly responsible for the shortage. In February, the country's biggest infant formula maker, Abbott, recalled multiple products and halted production at one of its facilities in Michigan after bacteria was found at the site. As a result, formula products became more and more scarce. And months later, the country was in a full-blown crisis.
"It's kind of like a perfect storm of so many terrible things happening and No. 1, should never have happened in the first place and we could have absolutely prevented it," Shazi Visram, founder and CEO of Healthybaby, told CNBC.com.
Here's a timeline of exactly how we got to this point:
- February 2022: The Abbott plant was shut down because bacteria was found at its site, sparking an investigation by the FDA and CDC. At the time, there were reports of contaminated formula that may have been linked to the deaths of two infants and the hospitalization of two other infants with bacterial infections. The investigation uncovered leaks in the roof, cracks in key equipment and a previous citation for inadequate handwashing at the facility.
- May 2022: More than 40% of the U.S.'s baby formula supplies were out of stock. A representative from CVS confirmed its stores were limiting customers to three baby formula products per purchase, and Target rolled out some online ordering limitations.
The CEO of Abbott Laboratories, Robert Ford, apologized in a Washington Post op-ed for the company's role in the shortage on May 21. "We are making significant investments to ensure this never happens again," vowed Ford. He then listed steps the company planned to take to end the crisis like air-shipping millions of cans of powdered baby formula from a facility in Ireland and undergoing rigorous inspections for all Abbott infant formula products.
In response to the emergency, President Biden invoked the Defense Protection Act to ensure that manufacturers had the right ingredients to produce safe and healthy formula. Biden also announced a joint plan with Vice President Kamala Harris that included importing millions of bottles of formula—378 million bottles were secured by June 28.
- June 2022: The same Abbott formula production facility in Michigan was closed down again, this time because of severe storms and flooding throughout the state, CBS reports. The amount of baby formula on store shelves fell to a low point with 22.4% of products out of stock, IRI data shows.
- July 2022: The Abbott plant reopened and resumed production on July 1, a company spokesperson told Reuters. But in a hearing before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on July 20, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said the nationwide shortage "was a deficit that's going to take a while to fix."
Today, folks across the country are still sharing images of empty shelves on social media. In states like Colorado and Kansas, the amount of baby formula product in stock dropped below 60% in July, according to the data provided by the IRI.
At the height of the shortage, parents were forced to take drastic measures to feed their infants, including paying steep prices to scammers who were exploiting the emergency. Many consumers didn't realize they were purchasing from fraudulent sites until the formula they ordered never arrived.
Frustrated parents who were either scammed or just desperate to find formula for their babies scrambled for other solutions. Homemade baby formula recipes begin circulating on social media, which is not recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics who calls it unsafe. And many parents had no choice but to try different formula brands without knowing how their child would react to them.
If you're currently having a hard time finding baby formula, you can start with the advice provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
- Find safe substitutes
- Try formula that's made in another country
- Talk to your child's doctor about potential substitutes for specialty or hypoallergenic formula
It can also be useful to check local grocery stores or smaller retailers. There, you may be able to find store-brand versions of the formula your baby uses. Tapping into your network by asking family members or friends to ship products they find online or in stores can be a great solution, too.