By JOSH BOAK and PAT EATON-ROBB
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden stepped up his administration’s response to a nationwide baby formula shortage Thursday that has forced frenzied parents into online groups to swap and sell to each other to keep their babies fed.
The president discussed with executives from Gerber and Reckitt how they could increase production and how his administration could help, and talked with leaders from Walmart and Target about how to restock shelves and address regional disparities in access to formula, the White House said.
“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 administration plans to monitor possible price gouging and work with trading partners in Mexico, Chile, Ireland and the Netherlands on imports, even though 98% of baby formula is domestically made.
The problem is the result of supply chain disruptions and a safety recall, and has had a cascade of effects: Retailers are limiting what customers can buy, and doctors and health workers are urging parents to contact food banks or physicians’ offices, in addition to warning against watering down formula to stretch supplies or using online DIY recipes.
The shortage is weighing particularly on lower-income families after the recall by formula maker Abbott, stemming from contamination concerns. The recall wiped out many brands covered by WIC, a federal program like food stamps that serves women, infants and children, though the program now permits brand substitutes. The Biden administration is working with states to make it easier for WIC recipients to buy different sizes of formula that their benefits might not currently cover.
About half of infant formula nationwide is purchased by participants using WIC benefits, according to the White House.
Clara Hinton, 30, of Hartford, Connecticut, has a 10-month old daughter, Patiennce, who has an allergy that requires a special formula.
Hinton, who has no car, has been taking the bus to the suburbs, going from town to town, and finally found some of the proper formula at a box store in West Hartford. But she said the store refused to take her WIC card.
Hinton said her baby recently ran out of formula from an already opened can she got from a friend.
“She has no formula,” she said. “I just put her on regular milk. What do I do? Her pediatrician made it clear I’m not supposed to be doing that, but what do I do?”
“That’s not the first time I’ve come across a store that doesn’t take WIC,” she added. “That’s more like the stores in the suburban areas that aren’t taking WIC. And that’s where I’m finding my daughter’s formula at.”
Parents are also using social media to bridge supply gaps.
Ashley Maddox, a 31-year-old mother of two from San Diego, started a Facebook group on Wednesday after failing to find formula for her 5-month-old son, Cole, at the commissary on the Navy base.
“I connected with a gal in my group and she had seven cans of the formula I need that were just sitting in her house that her baby didn’t need anymore,” she said. “So I drove out, it was about a 20-minute drive and picked it up and paid her. It was a miracle.”
She said there was already a stigma attached to being a non-breastfeeding mom and that the group has become supportive. “To not be able to have that formula, it’s scary,” she said.
Jennifer Kersey, 36 of Cheshire, Connecticut, said she was down to her last can of formula for her 7-month-old son, Blake Kersey Jr., before someone saw her post on a Facebook group and came by with a few sample cans.
“At first I was starting to panic,” she said. “But, I’m a believer in the Lord, so I said, ’God, I know you’re going to provide for me’ and I just started reaching out to people, ‘Hey do you have this formula?’”
She said she and others in the group are helping each other, finding stores that might have the formula in stock and getting it to mothers who need it.
Kimberly Anderson, 34, of Hartford County, Maryland, said her 7 1/2-month-old son takes a prescription formula that has been nearly impossible to find locally. She turned to social media and said people in Utah and Boston found the formula, which she paid to have shipped.
“They say it takes a village to raise a baby,” she said. “Little did I know my village spans the entire U.S. as I ping friends, family for their zip codes so I can check their local Walmarts to have them ship directly to me.”
Erika Thompson, 28, a mother of three in Wallingford, Connecticut, said it’s become almost a full-time job for her to track down the hypoallergenic formula her 3 1/2-month-old daughter, Everly, needs. She said friends out of state have also been looking for her and shipping cans if they find them. She is down to one small sample can, which she said might last a couple more days.
“You can travel everywhere — countless towns, stores, Amazon, online,” she said. “Honestly, it’s heartbreaking.”
She said her body was not able to produce an adequate supply of milk, but she should not have to explain that to people. “It’s not our fault,” she said.
Shortages of basic goods have been a problem since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Access to medical supplies, computer chips, household appliances, cars and other goods has been hurt by closed factories and outbreaks of the virus, as well as storms and other climate-related events.
Dr. Navneet Hundal, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said she and other pediatricians have been grappling with the formula shortage for months.
“This is ruling our clinical practices right now,” she said. “It kind of blows my mind that just now it is becoming more talked about. We’ve been struggling with this since February. It‘s like putting out fires every day.”
Formula companies have stopped giving out samples that she could pass on to parents, Navneet said. Supply is still very patchy and she advises new parents to talk to their pediatricians to see if there are other brands of formula that they can safely give their newborns.
A safety recall compounded the challenges.
The Food and Drug Administration warned consumers on Feb. 17 to avoid some powdered baby formula products from a Sturgis, Michigan, facility run by Abbott Nutrition, which then initiated a voluntary recall. According to findings released in March by federal safety inspectors, Abbott failed to maintain sanitary conditions and procedures at the plant.
The FDA launched its investigation after four babies became sick with a rare bacterial infection after consuming formula manufactured at the plant. All four were hospitalized and two died. Chicago-based Abbott said in a statement, “there is no evidence to link our formulas to these infant illnesses.” Samples of the bacteria collected from the infants did not match those found in the company’s factory, Abbott noted.
Abbott said that pending FDA approval, “we could restart the site within two weeks.” The company would begin by first producing EleCare, Alimentum and metabolic formulas and then start production of Similac and other formulas. Once production began, it would take six to eight weeks for the baby formula to be available on shelves.
On Tuesday, the FDA said it was working with U.S. manufacturers to increase their output and streamline paperwork to allow more imports.
Biden, in a Thursday letter to the Federal Trade Commission, pressed the independent agency to “bring all of the Commission’s tools to bear” to investigate and act in response to reports of fraud or price gouging as a result of the supply disruptions.
“It is unacceptable for families to lose time and spend hundreds of dollars more because of price gougers’ actions,” he wrote to FTC Chair Lina Khan.
Eaton-Robb reported from Columbia, Connecticut. Associated Press writers Mike Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey, and Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.
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