Updated May 18, 2022 - Health

Why there is a baby formula crisis and what can be done about it

Empty shelves for baby formula.

Photo: Paul Hennessy via Getty Images

The ongoing baby formula shortage may not end anytime soon as retailers and manufacturers are now expecting a months-long delay until a full supply of formula hits shelves again.

The big picture: The shortage has caused panic among the millions of parents and caregivers in the U.S. who rely on formula to feed their children.

  • "It's really critical for their growth and development that they are able to access the nutrition that they need," Danielle Dooley, a pediatrician at the Child Health Advocacy Institute at Children's National Hospital, told the Washington Post.

What is baby formula?

Baby or infant formula is full of nutrients to help babies develop and grow and come in a variety of forms. Formula makers often rely on federal standards for designing their formulas.

  • The most common type is cow milk that has been altered to become more like breastmilk, according to Mayo Clinic.
  • Soy-based formulas are an option for babies who are intolerant or allergic to milk. And then there are protein hydrolysate formulas for babies who can't tolerate milk- or soy-based formulas.
  • Formulas can come in powdered form, as a concentrated liquid and as ready-to-use.

Why do people use formula instead of breastmilk?

  • The formulas are designed to mimic breastmilk, the Associated Press reports, though doctors often recommend breastfeeding until babies are at least 6 months old.
  • However, many women run into issues and face difficulty breastfeeding. For example, some people are unable to produce high supplies of milk and need to supplement with formula to make sure their baby is eating enough. Others may be on certain medications that would make breastfeeding dangerous.
  • Mothers will also stop breastfeeding long-term because they will return to work and won't have the time or equipment necessary, AP reports.

Yes, but: States and the federal government have been pushing for working mothers to receive more break time and help for breastfeeding.

How did the baby formula shortage happen?

Supply chain issues from the COVID-19 pandemic and a recent recall led to an immense shortage of baby formula across the U.S., the Wall Street Journal reports.

In February, Abbott Nutrition — one of the largest suppliers for baby formula in the United States — recalled several major brands of its formula after federal officials investigated four babies who suffered bacterial infections from baby formula made at Abbott's factory in Sturgis, Michigan.

  • The Food and Drug Administration said that the bacterium known as Cronobacter sakazakii "may have contributed to the cause of death for both patients."
  • The FDA said it would "take additional time" to confirm more about the existence of Cronobacter in the formula.

Who is impacted by the baby formula shortage?

Parents and caregivers are heavily impacted by this shortage.

  • About 25% of parents breastfeed their children until they're 6 months old, according to the CDC.
  • This means the majority of parents and caregivers use baby formula to some extent, per the Washington Post.

Premature infants and babies with certain medical conditions face tremendous risk since they need specialized formulas because of their specific medical conditions.

  • Lindsey Groff, the executive director of the Human Milk Bank Association of North America, told NBC News that premature and medically fragile infants can receive help from food banks.
  • Groff said "every milk bank that I have spoken with has seen a major increase in demand."
  • Some older children and even adults need certain specialty formulas to stay alive, Politico notes.

Impoverished families are struggling from the shortage, too, since the remaining supplies have caused a price gouge at many retail stores and online sellers, including eBay.

Black infants are disproportionately impacted as only 76% are ever breastfed, below the national average of 84%, per the CDC.

What they're saying: "It's been impossible to get our hands on it, and the only ones we can find online, people price-gouged," parent Jessi Whitesides told the Washington Post. "There were two cases on Ebay, which is eight cans, that was going for $800."

  • "It's very scary, especially for the families that have to have a particular blend formula, because now they're worried about how can they feed their baby?" Megan Sparks, a manager for Any Baby Can, a nonprofit that helps children with special needs, told the New York Times.

What can be done to stop the baby formula shortage?

Percentage of baby formula out of stock
Data: Datasembly; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

President Joe Biden announced on Friday that he would be invoking the Defense Production Act to address the baby formula shortage.

  • Under the Defense Production Act, suppliers will be required to direct needed resources to baby formula manufacturers.
  • Biden also directed various agencies to use Department of Defense commercial planes to pick up formula from overseas to restock shelves in the U.S.

The White House said Friday that Abbott Nutrition will give low-income families the flexibility to purchase any available baby formula products in the next few months amid the shortage.

  • Currently, states have contracts with specific manufacturers for baby formula, whether it's Abbott, Gerber or another company.
  • The flexibility will give low-income families a chance to purchase any formulas that become available.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said Friday in a letter that the House will bring up a bill that will "grant emergency authority to the WIC program to address supply chain disruptions and recalls."

  • "Doing so will empower the federal government to relax certain non-safety-related regulations during times of shortage so that we can get nutrition into the mouths of America’s babies," Pelosi wrote.
  • "With this step, we maintain our laser focus on protecting the health and well-being of our babies – now and for the rest of their lives."

President Biden announced Thursday his administration will take additional steps to address the baby formula shortage, including cutting "red tape" to make sure formula gets onto shelves quicker and increasing the amount of formula received through imports.

  • Biden said he would call on the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to crack down on unfair market prices due to the sale of the products.
  • Biden spoke with the CEOs of Walmart and Target on Thursday about the shortage and how those companies are working to stock shelves, according to a senior administration official.
  • The official said the Biden administration has not invoked the Defense Production Act despite calls to do so. Biden will keep all options on the table, though, the official said.

The FDA said that it is "doing everything in our power" to improve the supply of baby formula.

  • "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," said FDA commissioner Robert Califf in a statement.

When will the baby formula shortage end?

Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there's no timeline on when baby formula will be available.

  • "So our message to parents (is) we want to do everything we can and we're going to cut every element of red tape to help address this," she said.

Abbott Nutrition said in a statement it's been working to address the shortage by addressing the FDA's concerns about its Sturgis facility.

  • The company said that baby formula products could be available on shelves six to eight weeks after the site restarts, which would take two weeks to restart pending FDA approval.

Go deeper: Families struggle to find baby formula as shortage intensifies

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new details throughout.

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