Western Washington parents could continue to struggle to find formula for weeks as the nation takes steps to recover from a 45% out-of-stock rate on baby formula.
A FedEx plane arrived at Dulles International Airport on Wednesday afternoon, hauling 120,000 pounds of hypoallergenic baby formula from Germany — enough for roughly 1 million 8-ounce bottles.
The formula was immediately transported to the Nestle facility near Allentown, Pennsylvania where it will be sorted, packaged, and shipped out to hospitals, families in need and retailers nationwide as soon as this weekend.
However, it is unclear how much will be sent to each state, or which stores will get it.
The shipment marks the second haul from Germany as part of the Biden administration’s “Operation Fly Formula.”
The first shipment, a military cargo plane hauling 78,000 pounds of specialty formula for distribution at hospitals and clinics only, arrived at an airport in Indianapolis on Sunday.
The act allows the federal government to have more control over industrial production during emergencies, according to The Associated Press. It also permits the administration to direct suppliers of formula ingredients to prioritize delivery to manufacturers of formula.
The following day, the Senate unanimously approved a bill intended to improve access to baby formula in the U.S.
So how did the shortage get so bad?
Inflation and supply chain issues both played a role in the shortage, but the formula supply was hardest hit after the country’s largest formula plant was forced to close amid a widespread recall.
The U.S. House Energy Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations is also investigating the shortage.
On Wednesday, FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf testified before the subcommittee.
“First of all, let me say you’re right to be concerned and the public should be concerned,” Dr. Califf said. “As I’ve said already, it was too slow and there were decisions that were suboptimal along the way.”
The chief struggled to explain the FDA’s slow response to the shortage after the agency closed the facility and Abbott announced a massive recall of its formula.
“We knew that ceasing plant operations would create supply problems but we had no choice given the insanitary conditions,” said Califf, calling the problems “shocking” and “unacceptable.”
Last week, the FDA approved a plan that allowed Abbott to partially restart its shuttered plant to help alleviate the nationwide shortage.
Those with Abbott said the company hopes to reopen the plant in early June.
While efforts are being made both overseas and at home, nothing is an immediate fix. The United States currently sits at a 45% out-of-stock rate, according to Datasembly.
The shortage has sent parents into a formula-finding frenzy — some driving hours and going store-to-store to locate a few cans, others trading with parents in different states, some opting to make their own — a dangerous option that is not recommended for nutritional reasons.
Since the shortage began, at least two babies have been hospitalized.
“There’s just nothing there, the stores are empty, the shelves are empty,” Puyallup mother Hannah Potter told our partners at The News Tribune.
After multiple unsuccessful attempts to find formula, Potter turned to the internet. Parents in a number of states began to send her formula. She received 32 cans in total, then noticed her son was getting sick.
“He started getting extremely sick, was projectile vomiting, sleeping pretty much the whole day, we went to the ER and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong, another week went by, it was just getting worse,” Potter said.
Potter then found out that 29 of the 32 cans she had received were part of the recall.
Potter said she has now resorted to feeding her son whole milk only.
According to a new recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics, infants over six months can be given whole milk for a limited time to supplement during the shortage.
However, Eliza Lagerquist, a neonatal dietician at the University of Washington Medical Center, tells KIRO 7 that both whole milk and homemade formula should be a parent’s very last resort.
“I know that it’s tempting to make homemade formula, and it is something people used to do, but babies also used to get sick a lot more often and die, so having a safe force of food that is regulated and tested, there are just a lot more instances of contamination if you make it yourself rather than if it is monitored,” Lagerquist said.
Lagerquist also described the nutritional risks associated with using whole milk, homemade formula, or diluted formula.
“They can be a lot higher in some of the proteins, in some minerals, they can be lower in things like iron, they can cause loss of fluid from diarrhea,” Lagerquist said. “Overhydration, even if there’s too much water — that’s a risk for watering down formula, weight loss if there’s not enough calories, vitamin deficiencies, essential fatty acid deficiency, or another malabsorption.”
“There’s just so many it’s hard to pinpoint one kind of reason, there’s just a lot of risks involved with it,” Lagerquist continued.
Considering there is still some formula to be found, Lagerquist recommends talking to your pediatrician to find a similar alternative, then when you see one of those comparable formula options in stock, buy it.
Pediatricians say children may have some indigestion while adjusting to new formulas, but that should only last about a week.
If your baby won’t take the new formula, Lagerquist recommends changing the way you serve it.
“You can try warming it up, you can try actually chilling it, the same way if we eat something cold it has less flavor, if you still have some of your old formula, you can do some mixing and that can help pave the way to a different formula,” Lagerquist explained.
Parents also have a number of resources outside of store shelves to find formula, like your local WIC office, hospitals, food banks and smaller stores.
It is unclear how much formula each state will receive from Wednesday’s shipment from overseas.
KIRO 7 reached out to the Washington Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to see when we could expect shipments of the formula that came from Germany.
“Our WA WIC team at DOH is still waiting on our federal partners to provide more guidance on how distribution will be managed and implemented,” the agency said in part.
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