A worsening shortage of baby formula, the main source of nutrition for many infants, has sent parents scrambling to find the products online and across state lines.
The shortage is especially acute for parents of babies who require specialty formulas to address allergies, as well as gastrointestinal or metabolic conditions.
“The baby formula out-of-stock issue continues to be a major problem for the industry, and we see no indication of a slowdown,” said Ben Reich, CEO of consumer product analytics firm Datasembly. “Baby formula demonstrated inflationary spikes in July of 2021, and the situation has continued to worsen throughout the first few months of 2022.”
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Here’s a breakdown of the shortage, what’s driving it, and how people are dealing with it.
One cause: The Abbott recall.
One clear cause of the shortage is a February recall of powdered formulas manufactured at Abbott Nutrition’s manufacturing plant in Sturgis, Michigan, where operations have been placed on pause. The Food and Drug Administration issued the recall after receiving complaints of infections due to Cronobacter sakazakii bacteria in four babies from September 2021 to January 2022. Abbott, one of the largest producers of baby formula, said it is “working closely with the FDA to implement corrective actions.”
Another cause: Manufacturers were unprepared for the early pandemic boom.
The market for baby formula has remained relatively unchanged since birth rates began declining in 2007, with most of the industry’s recent growth coming from formulas made for infants with special dietary needs. The industry was not prepared for the product-hoarding at the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020 and has since struggled to catch back up.
“The market for infant formula has been a weak market for a long time, and the result of that is that they weren't exactly positioned to respond to a sudden positive shock,” said Lyman Stone, an economist at Demographic Intelligence, which provides U.S. birth and marriage forecasts. “When a crisis comes, suddenly, you can’t find your formula. Why? Because the economic case for investing and producing it at scale wasn't there for a long time.”
A broader cause: Pandemic supply chain problems.
The broader supply chain problems that helped drive up inflation to historic levels and have created shortages of other items at grocery stores have also ensnared infant formula-makers.
In particular, worker absenteeism due to sickness or exposure to COVID-19 at production facilities and within the transportation sector slowed production and distribution, an industry trade group representative said.
The conflict in Ukraine has also hampered formula makers' ability to source products overseas while the Abbott manufacturing facility remains closed, as much of the formula supply in Europe is needed to aid Ukrainian refugees in Eastern Europe.
In addition to slowing or halting production, the pandemic also strained supplies of ingredients needed to make the formula. For instance, health and hygiene product manufacturer Reckitt, which makes the infant formula Enfamil, cited "increases or volatility in the cost of raw materials and commodities" in its earnings report for the first quarter of 2022.
The supply of formula was relatively stable in the first half of 2021, but by July, the availability of formula on shelves began to dip, according to Datasembly. Over 30% of the national baby formula inventory was out of stock last month, up from 23% in January and 11% in November last year,
“Inflation, supply chain shortages, and product recalls have brought an unprecedented amount of volatility for baby formula,” Reich said. “We expect to continue to see the baby formula category being dramatically affected by these conditions.”
Hoarding remains a problem as well. Many parents panic-bought formula in bulk when they started to hear rumblings of a shortage, which likely exacerbated the problem. Parents are now being encouraged not to hoard the products when they find them on store shelves out of consideration of other parents who were not as lucky.
Another possible cause: Breastfeeding has declined in recent years.
The scarcity coincides with overall declining rates of women breastfeeding their infants, according to Stone, who helps conduct a twice-yearly survey that asks about breastfeeding behaviors. A lag over the past two years in women breastfeeding their infants has increased the demand for formula, Stone said.
"What I do have a lot of confidence in is the general direction, which is that breastfeeding rates declined between, say, 2019 and 2022," Stone said. "Because breastfeeding rates declined, that creates a natural upward pressure on demand for infant formula."
How is the price affected?
Limited supplies have driven up prices beyond what parents have ever seen. Cases of price gouging have been reported on social media by parents who were fortunate enough to find the products on online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay. For instance, a Delaware mother posted a photo on her Facebook page of a single 12.4-ounce container of Gerber Good Start for sale on Facebook Marketplace for a staggering $50, with an additional $10.80 for shipping. The formula normally sells for about $19 in grocery stores.
Meanwhile, a 12.4-ounce container of powdered Enfamil Gentlease Infant Formula for Fussiness, Gas, and Crying is listed on eBay for about $45 per container, in addition to $10 for shipping, compared to the normal price of about $19 at most retailers.
Baby formula is expensive for many families, even when the supply chain is strong. The cost across the most popular brands can average between $1,200 and $1,500 during a baby’s first year, according to the Surgeon General.
How are parents dealing with it?
Desperate parents are turning to social media in order to crowdsource supplies and keep up with restocks in their area. Many have also spent hours driving around their states trying different stores in the hope of finding some, only to come up empty-handed. A Pennsylvania mother, for example, said last week that she spent about eight hours searching on depleted shelves in her area for her 10-month-old’s food.
Some parents have also taken to watering down formula or supplementing it with animal milk, which pediatricians advise against, as this does not provide the infant with the necessary nutrition to grow and thrive. Sometimes, pediatricians will have some supplies on hand given to them by the companies as samples. Pediatricians also encourage parents to try smaller drugstores, as big-box retailers such as Target and Walmart are likely to see empty shelves.
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How are companies dealing with it?
Retailers have taken to rationing the number of formula products people can buy per transaction in an attempt to extend supplies and keep shelves full for longer. Target.com, for instance, is limiting sales to four units per purchase, while Walgreens and CVS are both limiting formula purchases to three per transaction online or in stores.
Abbott, meanwhile, is still working with the FDA to resume operations at its Sturgis plant. The company has ramped up production at its Columbus, Ohio, manufacturing facility of the Similac Ready-to-Feed liquid formula, a product that can be used directly from the bottle and was not affected by the February recall. The company has also increased production at its facility in Cootehill, Ireland, and is air-shipping products to the United States daily.