JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s been an exercise in frustration for parents to find baby formula -- and store shelves may not be fully stocked until mid-summer.
In fact, parents will tell you it has become a full-blown crisis.
Go to the store and in some places, you will find the store shelves are out of stock. It’s been a problem since March.
It has parents in a panic over where and when they’ll be able to find the formula they need to feed their kids. The out-of-stock rate, compared to what’s typically available, was 43% for the week ending May 8.
With no easy end in sight, caregivers drive store to store in search of baby formula. Consequently, retailers are limiting the number of cans customers can buy. There may be some relief in sight.
Abbott Labs, the biggest baby formula supplier in the U.S., says they can restart production at the Michigan plant in two weeks if US regulators give the okay. They were forced to stop production in February.
Abbott voluntarily recalled powdered formula because of potential contamination with environmental bacteria. Two babies died and two more got sick after having been fed formula produced at the Abbott Labs plant in Sturgis, Mich.
But Abbott conducted an investigation and last week issued this statement.
“There is no evidence to link our formula to these infant illnesses,” Abbott said.
Abbott Labs spokespeople say they can restart production of baby formula at the Michigan plant in 2 weeks if U.S. regulators give the okay. That approval may come this week.
Still, it will be July before its formula is back on store shelves. So, you may be asking, “why so long?” Well, the short answer is the way the supply chain works is very complex.
“The supply chain works on a 90-day cycle globally, for just about all products., said Carl Gould, a business strategist and owner of 7 Stage Advisors. “And right now that supply chain is closer to 180 days. That’s the bigger issue. Then even when they make this formula, it touches a truck, which means a trucker, a forklift driver has to load and deliver this and that’s as big an issue as the production, so there’s no way around it, it’s going to take time for this to fix, Gould said.”
“And (in the interim) we have to get creative in how we purchase, as much as we may not like it,” Gould added.
Complicating things, in addition to the bacteria, and the fact that only three baby formula manufacturers have a monopoly on the product in the United States, are a virus and trade policy getting in the way.
“The government went to the manufacturers and said we’re going to buy a whole bunch of vaccines, right,” said Gould. “And they bought hundreds of millions of vaccines. The EU, the European Union, has similar standards for their formula. As soon as this happened, the first thing, the first call I would have made was to our partners in the European Union to see how much formula could we buy in the short term to at least soften some of the shortages.”
The other issue is importing. The U.S. normally produces 98% percent of the infant formula it consumes, and trading partners in Mexico, Chile, Ireland, and the Netherlands are key sources of imports. There’s no timeline yet for when those formula imports will arrive in the U.S and be distributed.
The Biden administration will announce its plan this week.