When Brandy Sloan, a 43-year-old mother, ran into the store – the fifth she visited that day – looking for formula for her children and found the shelves empty, she almost started crying.
“You feel defeated because you’re supposed to be able to feed your children and you can’t, because you don’t get anything,” she tells the BBC.
Sloan’s family, which has a 15-month-old daughter and a recently adopted 2-month-old son, is one of millions of American families facing severe difficulties in obtaining this product whose shortage affects the entire country.
Such is the desperation that many parents have tried to make their own formula – something the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend – with recipes found on the web.
Searches for how to prepare it at home increased by 2,400% in the last month, according to Google Trends. But how could this situation have come about?
We tell you some of the key factors in the development of this crisis.
1. What led to the formula milk crisis in the US?
In February of this year, Abbott Laboratories , a popular formula maker, closed its largest production plant in Sturgis, Michigan, and recalled several of its formulas after a federal investigation found that four infants who consumed his formula developed bacterial infections . Two of them died.
The investigation revealed the presence of a potentially deadly bacteria ( cronobacter ) both on and in the vicinity of the production lines.
The Sturgis plant produces half of Abbott’s supply.
The plant closure compounded already existing supply line problems that arose in the wake of the pandemic.
2. What impact did the pandemic have?
The coronavirus pandemic -declared in March 2020 by the WHO- generated chaos in supply chains and production of a wide variety of products.
As with toilet paper, many parents began stocking up on formula for fear of a shortage. This caused an increase in sales.
As families consumed the product they had already bought, sales began to drop and this made it more difficult to assess the size of the market and therefore production needs.
When there was a surge in births at the beginning of 2022, the supplies that had been manufactured fell short of meeting the demand.
3. How many companies make formula milk?
One of the factors exacerbating the crisis is that this $2.1 billion US industry is controlled by a small number of manufacturers .
There are four companies – Abbott (which represents about half of the market), Mead Johnson Nutrition, Nestlé USA and Perrigo – that control about 90% of the formula milk market in the country.
These companies operate a relatively small number of formula factories to maximize their efficiency and keep their production costs low.
Due to high tariffs (17.5%) and strict FDA regulations, only 2% of the product is imported . The FDA rules also make it very difficult for new companies to enter the market.
But the lack of competition is also due, according to The New York Times, to a simple mathematical rule: Few investors are interested in entering this market because the commercial success of the product is linked to the national birth rate, which has remained stable for decades until it began to decline in 2007.
With so few producers, when a factory closes it creates a domino effect that is difficult to stop.
4. When will this crisis come to an end?
Last week, the FDA and Abbott reached an agreement for the company to restart operations at its Michigan plant, but this may take a week or two.
This does not mean that the product will be back on the shelves anytime soon. According to Abbott, there may be a delay of about two months before the product reaches the stores.
On the other hand, the FDA announced a series of measures designed to increase supply.
The agency plans to implement processes to make it easier for foreign infant formula manufacturers to sell their product in the US.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration authorized the so-called “Operation Fly Formula” to facilitate the immediate importation of formula milk, and the first flight with a cargo of milk arrived in the country on Sunday.
And last Wednesday, Biden invoked the Defense Production Act, a wartime measure, to boost domestic production of formula milk.
5. What can parents do in the meantime?
The FDA does not recommend that consumers make homemade formula milk .
“The potential problems associated with errors in the selection and combination of ingredients for the formula are very serious and range from severe nutritional imbalances to products that are not safe and can harm babies,” says the agency on its page.
If there is little left, you have to continue preparing it as the instructions dictate and not be tempted to dilute it with water to make it last longer.
In case parents can’t find the product they’re looking for, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, among other things, checking out the social media pages of groups that are specifically dedicated to the issue of formula shortage and may have insight. where to find it.
They also suggest calling your primary pediatrician, as he or she may have samples, or connections to local organizations, or ideas of where to get them.
They also ask not to buy supplies for more than 10 days or two weeks, so as not to exacerbate the crisis.
- BBC News World