Baby food is running out across the United States, threatening the health of babies and other people who depend on it for their livelihoods.
Experts say this is the biggest formula shortage in decades. It’s also the latest example of how the US health system’s failures have consistently hit hardest for those with complex medical conditions and those who are socio-economically disadvantaged.
The shortage can be traced to a contamination problem at an Abbott plant that produces much of the Similac formula, as well as several other brands, for the US market. Abbott voluntarily closed the factory in February amid consumer complaints about contaminated formula linked to two infant deaths. Since mid-May it is still not up and running. if Politico reported this weekit’s not clear exactly why Abbott and the FDA have failed to reach an agreement that would allow the plant to resume production of formulas and help reduce the deficit.
The lengthy shutdown of that factory, combined with general supply chain problems for the formula ingredients and packaging, has meant that the stock of formulas is drying up quickly. Nationwide, about 40 percent of the most popular baby food brands were sold out on April 24 the Wall Street Journal, much higher than the 10 percent average in normal times. Some parts of the country, such as the San Antonio metropolitan area, see more than half of their normal stock out of stock. Panic buying amid news of the shortage has already caused a number of major chains… limit the number of formula containers that a person can buy. Officials are already concerned about the possibility of price gouging†
While supplies are limited, some people may have trouble feeding their children or themselves. It is people of color and people living in poverty, along with those who have to take special formulas for medical reasons, who are most exposed to the health and economic consequences of a long-term shortage of formulas.
“Certainly, the families who have fewer resources, have fewer options, who can’t afford premium prices are going to be more at risk,” said Ann Kellams, a pediatrician at the University of Virginia and board chair of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine.
Why an infant formula deficiency is so serious, briefly explained
Most families are dependent on infant formula to some degree. Nearly one in five babies is bottle-fed in the first two days of life. According to the CDC† By three months, less than half of babies are exclusively breastfed, meaning they take at least one bottle of formula as a supplement.
But not all families are equally dependent on formulas. According to CDC Survey Data, people living in poverty are the most likely to report having been bottle-fed in the first three months of their baby’s life. Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American parents are: all more inclined to say that they used bottle-feeding within three months than white parents.
And for some people, formula is not a choice but a necessity. Sometimes a baby struggles with breastfeeding and needs bottle feeding to keep on gaining weight. But allergies or immune disorders can also necessitate the use of formulas, including in childhood and into adulthood. As Politico noted in his report, about 2,000 Americans have a metabolic disorder so severe that the amino acid formula is their only means of survival.
Change formulas is certainly possible, but can still be troublesome in babies due to digestive issues – and can be difficult if one’s nutritional needs are particularly strict. During natural disasters, when formula can become even scarcer, the CDC insists on Breastfeeding mothers who are also bottle-feeding should consider breastfeeding more.
But for some people that won’t be possible, either because they can’t breastfeed or pump anymore, or because they need special formula. and experts strongly discourage people try to make their own formula at home, with the serious risks — including death — if a non-professional doesn’t get the formula right.
As a result, many families have few options available to them, which makes them wonder how they will feed a loved one which relies on a special out-of-stock formula to survive.
Some are taking drastic measures, with the New York Times reporting parents have rationed or watered down the formula, both of which can be harmful to children. some experts to advise contact your pediatrician for samples, but that’s another way the US health system puts certain people at a disadvantage: People in poverty and people of color are also less likely to have a regular source of health care.
US policy failures collide with formula shortages
America’s weak support for new parents and babies will only make it harder for people to cope with the baby food shortage. Even if a parent with a low-paid job wants to express breast milk at work or take time off to breastfeed at home, they are also the employees who have the least chance of paid family leave or have enough space and time pump at their workplace.
A stronger social safety net would have enabled the US to better navigate this deficit, Kellams argued. She pointed out that given the lack of paid leave in the US, the country always forces new parents to make difficult decisions about how to balance the need to care for their children with the need to support them financially.
That problem is only exacerbated in a crisis like this, where parents can struggle to find and provide the most basic nutrition for their child because of the economic dilemma the US has created for them.
“Part of the problem could have been avoided if we had taken better care of our children,” Kellams said.
No one knows for sure how long the shortage will last, but advocacy groups like the National WIC Association are already wanting more information about how this crisis came about. They point to the massive concentration in the bottle-feeding market, with just three companies bidding to provide formula for the 1 million babies bottle-fed through the WIC program.
The FDA has also suggested ways the US could avoid future emergencies. Currently, no law requires formula manufacturers to notify the federal government of impending supply disruptions. Demanding a warning gives officials a chance to make emergency plans.
But for now, the bottle-feeding shortage is yet another example of the failure of the US health system, with the world’s richest country struggling to provide basic nutrition to many of its babies.
As Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, said in a statement, “As a country, we need to look closely at how we got to this point.”