Formula shortage not yet a crisis in Santa Barbara, experts say
As images of bare shelves void of baby formula permeate newspapers and social media, health officials in Santa Barbara have a message for spooked parents: Don’t panic.
A nationwide formula shortage — exasperated by recalls and supply chain issues — has left families scrambling to find needed products. Countless desperate pleas pepper Facebook Marketplace and new mom groups: “URGENT NEED.” “PLEASE HELP.”
California fares better than nearly every other state when it comes to out-of-stock rates for formula — albeit, the shortage is still felt.
California is at 32% out-of-stock, according to the most recent information compiled by Datasembly, a real-time product pricing and data provider, and shared with the News-Press.
Eight states and Washington, D.C., have out-of-stock rates higher than 50%. Tennessee, Delaware, Texas, Montana, Nevada and West Virginia top the list.
Only three states (Indiana, New Mexico and Colorado) have rates lower than California.
In comparison, the national out-of-stock average for the first seven months of 2021 fluctuated between 2-8%. As of May 8, the national average jumped to 43%.
“This issue has been compounded by supply chain challenges, product recalls and historic inflation,” Datasembly CEO Ben Reich said. “The category started to see stocking challenges beginning in July 2021, and the situation has continued to worsen into 2022.”
While local health officials said the shortages have not yet reached an exigency, shortages are still felt in the Santa Barbara area — particularly when it comes to specialty formulas, such as EleCare or Enfamil Nutramigen, which are designed for newborns with certain health or dietary needs.
“At this time, it doesn’t seem like we’ve reached a crisis level,” Susan Liles, the WIC/Nutrition Services director for the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, told the News-Press. “We’re monitoring and listening to the questions and complaints we’re getting … and whenever possible, by calling the stores ahead of time, we’re able to figure out where stores have their shipments and can direct the public to those stores.”
Officials said parents should ensure they have an adequate supply of needed or prescribed formulas but avoid stockpiling.
“Similar to shortages of hygiene products at the beginning of the pandemic, there is no reason for consumers to hoard,” Dr. Daniel Brennan, a pediatrician at Sansum Clinic, told the News-Press. “It is a priority to make sure we have sufficient nutrition for babies, and I trust that more will be available very soon.”
“For most of our patients who take formula, there are substitute (or) alternative brands that will provide excellent nutrition,” Dr. Brennan continued. “For those on a specialty formula, I would recommend reaching out to your doctor (or the specialist who prescribed the specialty formula). We may be able to suggest short-term alternatives, help to track down samples or reach out to our local formula reps for assistance.”
Ms. Liles also suggested calling around to various stores. A product may be out of stock at one retailer but on the shelves at another.
One thing parents should avoid, officials said, is diluting or making homemade formula, which could be harmful to infants.
“Infant formula is carefully designed and formulated for the nutrition of babies,” said Dr. Brennan. “Making your own or diluting formula can create a significant risk to the health of your baby.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which heavily regulates specialty formulas, echoed the warning, noting infants have been hospitalized for hypocalcemia (low calcium) as a result of homemade formulas.
The FDA said it is working with manufacturers — including Abbott Nutrition, which recalled powder formulas such as Alimentum, EleCare and Similac in February — to address the shortage.
“We recognize that many consumers have been unable to access infant formula and critical medical foods they are accustomed to using and are frustrated by their inability to do so,” FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf said in a statement. “We are doing everything in our power to ensure there is adequate product available where and when they need it.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki earlier this week said the FDA was “working around the clock to address any possible shortage.”
About 91% of infants in California were breastfed at some point in their lives, according to 2018 data (the latest available) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nearly 40% of infants in California were breastfed and given formula before they were six months old, that same data showed. About 22% were breastfed and given formula within two days of life, according to the CDC.
Abbott issued the voluntary recall of its product in February after reports of bacterial infections related to the powdered formula made at its Sturgis, Mich. plant. Two babies reportedly died.
The FDA has faced bipartisan criticism for its handling of the complaints.
Abbott is the supplier for many state WIC programs, which serve more than 1.2 million babies across the U.S., according to U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.
Rep. DeLauro said she was concerned about practices at the Michigan Abbott facility as well as the speed of the FDA’s reaction.
“Why did the FDA not spring into action? Why did it take four months to pull this formula off store shelves? How many infants were fed contaminated formula during this time, by parents who trusted that the formula they were buying was safe? How many additional illnesses and deaths were there due to the FDA’s slow response,” Rep. DeLauro said.
And the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, recently sent a letter to Dr. Susan T. Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, to inquire about its practice for regulatory approval and if it could relax import restrictions on European baby formulas such as Holle, HiPP and Lebenswert.
Abbott products under recall have a multidigit number on the bottom of containers starting with the first to digits 22 through 37; contain K8, SH or Z2; and an expiration date of April 1 or later.
Parents can visit similacrecall.com and type in the code at the bottom of a package or call 800-986-8540 to find out if a product is included in the recall.
Parents should contact their local WIC agency and/or pediatrician for more information on what products can be purchased or given to a child.
Ms. Liles said the county health department has been aiding families who use WIC to find a store with products in stock or to switch benefits to cover what is available in stores. She suggested parents speak with pediatricians who have prescribed difficult-to-obtain formulas in case an alternative, safe option is available.
And Lori Goodman, executive director of the Isla Vista Youth Project, said her organization is accepting donations of formulas and can quickly and safely distribute them to families in need. The Isla Vista Youth Project operates a certified and free diaper bank and food distribution services as well.
California WIC suggested parents check social media groups for ideas on how to find formulas.
But parents should be aware: There could be scammers pretending to sell hard-to-find formulas who will steal data or money.
Santa Barbara County’s WIC program can be reached at 877-275-8805 or by texting SBWIC to 85511 for assistance.
More data on baby formula shortages can be found here: datasembly.com/news/out-of-stock-rate-in-april-2022-copy.