Baby formula is displayed on the shelves of a grocery store Tuesday with a sign restricting purchases in Indianapolis. Parents in Utah are struggling to find infant formula after a massive recall and ongoing supply chain issues. (Michael Conroy, Associated Press)
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SALT LAKE CITY — Traveling from store to store to stare at empty shelves, browse Facebook groups and spend hours each day on the phone has become a part of the lives of many parents across the country. It’s no different for Utah parents who are also desperate for infant formula.
Baby formula shortages have been brewing for months, and stores are struggling to keep shelves stocked. In February, one of the largest infant formula suppliers, Abbot Nutrition, was effectively shut down by the US Food and Drug Administration. The halt to production came after three brands of powdered baby food manufactured by the company were discovered to have potential bacterial infections.
Four infants who drank powder formulas made by the facility were hospitalized with Cronobacter sakazakii, killing two of the infants. After a recall was issued, the agency advised parents not to purchase or use certain lots of powdered infant formulas from Similac, Alimentum and EleCare.
While Abbot Nutrition’s recall and plant closure exacerbated the problem, the shortage has existed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve been addressing the formula situation throughout the COVID period because in the beginning there was panic buying that left our shelves empty,” said JoDell Geilmann-Parke, Utah women, infants and children’s program coordinator. “Since the beginning of COVID, we’ve kind of been in recovery mode.”
Since the recall, the formula shortage “is pretty much what we’ve been tackling all day, every day, trying to make sure families across the state have access to the formulas they need,” Geilmann-Parke added.
She said the agency works closely with Food and Nutrition Services officials, who communicate closely with federal agencies. Utah WIC has been able to accommodate a wider range of formulas to increase availability, but has still seen a decrease in supply on store shelves.
The social media market
Due to the lack of baby food, parents are looking to different places for food for their infants and many are turning to the internet. Casie Meisenheimer, a mother of four, is among Utah parents who have turned to Facebook groups in desperation.
Meisenheimer was unable to find formula for her 7-month-old baby on store shelves, online, or even at her pediatrician’s office, but instead turned to other parents.
“I was just non-stop. It’s like a full-time job right now. I wake up in the morning and check all the Facebook posts and see if anyone has sample cans they’re willing to give or if they have a can they bought and a receipt for me to pay for. It’s scary,” said Meisenheimer.
I was just non-stop. It’s like a full-time job right now. I wake up in the morning and check all the Facebook posts and see if anyone has sample cans they want to give or if they have a can they bought and have a receipt for me to pay for. Its scary.
–Casie Meisenheimer, parent from Utah
Your child uses a special formula to supplement their diet and help with their acid reflux. Meisenheimer went through several formulas but struggled to find one her baby didn’t respond to.
The formulas that Meisenheimer cannot use are also listed in Facebook groups and immediately taken up by equally desperate mothers.
“It’s really up to the mothers to just stick together and help each other. Today I was added to a Formula Shortage Utah page where moms walked around the store to take pictures of the shelves so moms didn’t have to drive away for empty shelves forever,” Meisenheimer said. “There’s a lot of moms who are breastfeeding; they can also pump and give milk to each other.”
While some are able to find help, others like Meisenheimer still struggle to find a specific formula. When this specialized formula is found, prices continue to rise. This, combined with ongoing inflation, has left many Utahns struggling financially.
“We are now living paycheck to paycheck and are not entitled to any help. That doesn’t make any sense to me. I can’t work at the moment. I have four children under the age of seven,” Meisenheimer said. “We hardly make it. So they just keep adding to everything – I’m not even paying my mortgage right now. I’m just taking the hit on my credit because I can’t pay it. It feeds my kids or pays my mortgage.”
Meisenheimer is not alone. Utah Food Bank CEO Ginette Bott said many Utahns have been hit hard by the pandemic and again by inflation.
Many first-time users of our services during the pandemic emerged. … We had hoped that these families would be able to get back on their feet once the pandemic was over. Inflation suddenly sets in. And now groceries, gas, utilities, affordable housing — all the things that were expensive before are even more expensive now.
—Ginette Bott, Utah Food Bank
“Many first-time users of our services during the pandemic have surfaced. These people still have problems. Any time you fall behind on that — use an example of a home payment or a car payment — it takes a long time to catch up,” Bott said. “We had hoped that once the pandemic was over, these families would be able to get back on their feet. Inflation suddenly sets in. And now groceries, gas, utilities, affordable housing — all the things that were expensive before are even more expensive now.”
Though there is no set date for when the formula shortage will end, FDA officials say they are working to address the issue. In a statement released Tuesday, the agency said it was working on supply chain issues and with manufacturers to make safe formulas.
“We recognize that many consumers do not have access to the infant formula and critical medical foods they are accustomed to using and are frustrated that they cannot. We are doing everything in our power to ensure that an adequate product is available when and where we need it,” said FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf.
Until the issue is resolved, Geilmann-Parke stressed the importance of FDA-approved products.
“Things like cow’s milk or over-diluted formula or even home-made formula mixes put babies at risk. And these practices can lead to malnourished, iron-deficient babies and death,” she said. “So we want to make sure clients, patients, families, mothers, everyone is doing their best to look for reliable sources.”