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‘My nerves are shot’: Parents struggle during baby formula shortage
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The recent shortage of baby formula on supermarket shelves has some mothers searching everywhere for the kind their child needs. - photo by Scott Rogers

Wendy Boswell has struggled for months to find formula for her 8-year-old daughter with special needs.

“My nerves are shot,” said Boswell, who lives in Buford. “We have a special needs child that was on one of the recalled formulas. It's been months of stress trying to find the one formula she can keep down. We made a trip to Augusta from North Georgia for eight cans once. It's beyond scary when you are down to a few cans and can't find any.” 

She is just one of the many parents who can’t find formula for their children amid a national shortage. 

More than 40% of large retail stores are out of stock, according to Datasembly, a data analytics firm. That figure is up from 31% in mid-April. In the first half of 2021, the rate fluctuated between 2% and 8%.

The problems began last year as the coronavirus pandemic led to disruptions in the supply chain. And because the formula market in the United States is dominated by a handful of companies, it is particularly vulnerable to disruptions. 

"There are only four or five major manufacturers, so if you take one of the major ones offline, it can cause shortages, which is exactly what happened," said Peter Pitts, former associate commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

In February, formula maker Abbott Nutrition recalled several major brands and shut down its Sturgis, Michigan, factory after FDA officials found that four babies suffered bacterial infections after consuming formula from the plant. Two of the infants died.

When FDA inspectors visited the plant in March they found lax safety protocols and traces of the bacteria on several surfaces. None of the bacterial strains matched those collected from the infants, however, and the FDA hasn’t offered an explanation for how the contamination occurred.

Abbott has said that its formula “is not likely the source of infection,” though FDA officials continue to investigate. 

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Saima Hussian, a pediatrician at Longstreet Clinic in Braselton. “We're getting calls from parents that are having a hard time finding formulas in stores, and they're calling for advice on where to look and what else they can do." 

It is OK to switch to a different brand of formula, Hussain tells them, because many brands are quite similar. But diluting formula to make it last longer or switching to plant-based or animal-based milks can be dangerous, she said. 

For parents like Boswell, though, simply switching brands isn't an option. Her daughter, Ava, requires feeding through a gastrointestinal tube, and she can only stomach specialty formulas with zero additives such as flavorings or probiotics. 

"Her stomach is so sensitive," she said. "You can look at her and she'll throw up." 

Ava was using a speciality formula called EleCare produced by Abbott before it was recalled and health care providers urged parents to trash their remaining supply. After some trial-and-error testing with other formulas, they switched to unflavored Neocate Junior. 

"You can't buy this formula in a store," she said. "We get it through the company that sends us all our feeding bags and feeding pump." 

One day a shipment arrived, but there was no formula. 

"The panic that ensued in my body," Boswell said. "We don’t have a lot of money now, but we've always had food. There's always something I could feed my children. It's a totally different experience when you look at your child and you can feed them nothing." 

“For two days, all I could give her was Pedialyte, and it was the biggest tear-fest ever,” she said. “Now when I get to like my last four cans, I'm like, ‘Okay, do I just cut her back?’ … She's supposed to have 30 ounces a day. Do I cut her back to 20 ounces a day? That would stretch it out. My mind starts playing with these things, and I'm like, ‘What do I do?’”

The FDA said Tuesday that it was working with U.S. manufacturers to increase their output and streamlining paperwork to allow more imports.

“Between FDA guidelines and our trade policies, it makes it very difficult to bring formula into the country on a cost-effective basis,” said Marcus Bullock, practice administrator at Pediatric Associates, which has locations in Braselton and Gainesville. 

Abbott said it could restart manufacturing at its plant within two weeks, pending FDA approval. It would take another six to eight weeks before more formula hits store shelves.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden met with major producers and retailers to discuss ways of ramping up supply and restocking shelves. 

“We recognize that this is certainly a challenge for people across the country, something the president is very focused on and we’re going to do everything we can to cut red tape and take steps to increase supply,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.