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Parents are grappling with an ‘impossible’ baby formula shortage

The safety shutdown of major infant formula plant, coupled with supply chain issues, has shelves empty and families worried.

Families across New England are grappling with a shortage of baby formula, caused by supply chain issues and a February recall. Matt Harrison and his wife Allie are among those afflicted. They've had to search far and wide for the formula they feed their thirteen-month-daughter, Margaret, for several months.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Matt Harrison has looked everywhere — everywhere — for baby formula to feed his 1-year-old daughter.

Some nights after work, he checks out stores in Cambridge, Somerville, and Arlington for the powder mix, only to head home to South Boston empty-handed. His in-laws are constantly on the lookout for a stray can. Twice, Harrison paid $150 on Amazon for three 36-ounce packs of Similac Advance, about 25 percent above what he normally pays.

“It’s an impossible situation,” he said. “Go to any store right now, and the shelves are nearly empty. We don’t know what to do.”

A nationwide shortage of baby formula has found its way into homes such as Harrison’s, with parents struggling to purchase the mixture that keeps millions of infants nourished. The amount of baby formula that was out of stock across the country hit 43 percent for the week ending Sunday May 8, according to retail software company DataAssembly. Normally-flush aisles at Walgreens, Target, and CVS lay barren, forcing stores to impose purchase limits.

Online, private sellers are hiking prices by double — or even triple — the sticker price.

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“I just feel lucky that we’re able to afford that,” Harrison said.

Like many other products, baby formula was caught up in the supply-chain shortages caused by the pandemic. But the pinch intensified in February when federal health officials recalled three powdered formulas made by major manufacturer Abbott Laboratories and temporarily closed an Abbott plant in Michigan for safety review. The Food and Drug Administration launched an investigation into four reports of infants who were hospitalized after consuming the formula; two died.

Other manufacturers have since tried — and failed — to speed up production enough to keep shelves full, said Willy Shih, a professor of management practices at Harvard Business School.

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“The shutdown at the Abbott factory took capacity out of the system at a time when the supply chain was already stressed,” he added. “It’s a lesson for us all.”

In response, Abbott ramped up production at a plant in Ohio and increased shipments from Ireland. Late Wednesday, the company announced that “there is no evidence to link our formulas to these infant illnesses” based on available data and that it will reopen its Michigan plant within two weeks, contingent on FDA approval.

“From the time we restart the site, it will take six to eight weeks before product is available on shelves,” a statement read. Abbott produces about 40 percent of infant formula in the United States.

As for other producers filling the gap, the FDA also said Tuesday it is meeting regularly with major manufacturers to increase formula output. “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,” wrote FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf. “We are doing everything in our power to ensure there is adequate product available.”

President Biden stepped in Thursday, too, to vow to increase imports of formula from trade partners like Mexico and the Netherlands and crack down on price gouging at home.

Sparsely stocked shelves at a Walgreens in San Antonio, May 10, 2022. KAYLEE GREENLEE BEAL/NYT

But for families, help can’t come fast enough.

Dr. Navneet Hundal, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Mass General Brigham, has taken a slew of appointments recently with “stressed and extremely anxious” parents looking for nutrition guidance.

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Nearly half of mothers report supplementing with formula at some point in their baby’s first year, according to a survey from Mamava, which provides lactation pods. The US market for baby formula was $3.65 billion in 2019, according to Allied Market Research.

“I have seen parents so desperately trying to make a can of formula last by diluting it, by putting more water and less formula in,” Hundal said. She warns against this, as it can cause severe neurological consequences.

In Millis, Kelsey BaRoss regularly scours Shaw’s or Roche Bros. to find formulas for her 4-month old. BaRoss initially tried to breast-feed but could not produce enough milk. Now, she considers herself lucky her daughter is tolerant of multiple formulas.

“I can’t even imagine what it’s like for families who need a specific brand or whose babies have tummy issues,” BaRoss said. “Government officials have been talking about fixing this for several months. It feels too little, too late.”

Across Greater Boston, nonprofit agencies are in a frenzy to help low-income families through the chaos. Boston-based Project Bread, for instance, reported an uptick in calls from caregivers to its FoodSource hotline.

“We’ve heard from people who may be just over the income limits for” the Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program, “but who are still struggling to source food for their families, especially when infants have more specific dietary formula needs,” Khara Burns, its senior director of SNAP outreach programs, said in a statement.

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In online groups and social media, some people encourage parents to simply switch brands, feed their children cow’s milk, or breast-feed. But it’s not that simple, Hundal notes. Several brands are low on supply, and children often resist changing to a different formula — or using multiple brands interchangeably.

“People don’t understand it’s not easy to find an alternative,” BaRoss said. “I feel like I had just gotten over the shame of not being able to breast-feed, and now those feelings have come up again.”

People with allergies, gastrointestinal issues, and metabolic conditions are especially left in the lurch. Many require specialty formulas manufactured by Abbott to supplement their diets. Now, patients are enduring “a bad, bad situation,” said Dr. Chris Duggan, a gastroenterology physician at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Some nights after work, Matt Harrison (left) checks out stores to stores in Cambridge, Somerville, and Arlington for the powder mix, only to head home to South Boston empty-handed.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

He works with 90 children with short bowel syndrome whose formula was affected by the recall. Four have lost enough weight to be considered malnourished. One was hospitalized.

And it’s not just infants. Denise Queally, of Milton, fears for her 20-year-old daughter, Caroline. She drinks Phenex 2 formula daily and has done so since she was diagnosed with phenylketonuria, a rare disorder that affects her ability to digest protein, as a baby. Without the supplement, Caroline will become agitated and malnourished. In a dire scenario, she could suffer from brain damage, Queally said through tears.

“We’ve been trying to string along the little supply we have,” said Queally, who leads the New England chapter of a support group for people with PKU and allied disorders. “The other day, we found six more cans when she was moving out of college, and it felt like we struck gold.”

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Alyssa Augusto, a 28-year-old PKU patient, knows the formula scarcity affects both her and her unborn baby. She has consumed formula most days since birth, and if she stops while 31 weeks pregnant, the child could be born with intellectual disabilities.

Augusto relies on a shrinking stockpile of formula she keeps in her home — some of which makes her feel ill.

But it won’t last forever.

“I have to make sure I’m doing this for my baby,” Augusto said. “But one plant shut down, and like a tsunami, it wiped everything out. We need answers.”


Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her @ditikohli_.