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Infant formula shortage hits home in the north country

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WATERTOWN — Few things have the power to occupy a parent’s mind more than the health of their children.

The nationwide infant formula shortage, brought on by supply chain issues and a major formula recall, has left many concerned about their options for feeding their little ones. Northern New York has not been immune to what has become a common sight in grocery stores across the country: empty spaces on shelves that used to be filled by infant formula. At Price Chopper and other stores in the north country, signs tell customers to see a sales associate to have them unlock the formula they need — if it’s in stock — and customers are only allowed to buy a certain amount at any given time.

The infant formula market was heavily disrupted when the Sturgis, Michigan, Abbott Nutrition plant recalled popular powdered formulas in February, then shut down. Those recalled products included powder formula sold under the labels Similac, Alimentum and EleCare labels after four children became ill with bacterial infections and two died. Abbott is one of the largest manufacturers of infant formula in the U.S.

The Sturgis plant, through an Abbott deal with the Food and Drug Administration, is expected to resume operations in early June.

During a House hearing on Wednesday, FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf detailed “egregiously unsanitary” conditions at the Sturgis plant and acknowledged the FDA’s response to the problems was too slow.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations heard from Mr. Califf and Abbott Senior Vice President of U.S. Nutrition Christopher J. Calamari.

Legislation to help ease the infant formula shortage has been progressing through Congress this month.

The Access to Baby Formula Act was approved in the House by a 414-9 vote and passed the Senate by unanimous consent. The legislation expands pandemic-era flexibilities granted to Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC participants. President Joseph R. Biden signed the bill into law on May 21.

The Infant Formula Supplemental Appropriations Act would allocate $28 million in emergency funding to the FDA to bolster inspections of formula manufactured at foreign facilities and work to prevent future scarcities. The bill passed the House 231-192 in a mainly party-line vote. In the Senate, Republicans are arguing that giving more money to the FDA is not the solution to the shortage.

Last week, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to increase formula production and authorize aircraft to help speed shipment of infant formula to the United States from overseas. Initial shipments have already arrived.

About 2 million cans of infant formula made by U.K.-based Kendal Nutricare are expected to arrive on U.S. shelves starting next month after receiving special clearance from the FDA, the agency said earlier this week.

The ripple effects from the Sturgis plant closing have been widespread, with parents calling on friends and family to help locate food for their babies and some resorting to making their own formula at home, rationing supplies, or driving for hours in search of formula.

The New York State Department of Health has said it’s important that families don’t hoard formula, which will further impact the supply chain and other families. For families struggling to find the formula they need, the Department of Health recommends calling an infant’s medical provider to see if they have in-office samples or can suggest a similar formula that may be more readily available in stores; looking online for options available but only ordering from well-recognized distributors and pharmacies; refraining from using toddler formula to feed infants; and not watering down formula or trying to make infant formula at home.

A MOTHER’S PERSPECTIVE

Watertown mother Taylor M. Fields, 27, has experienced the effects of the formula shortage firsthand. Her son Stephen “Stevie” G. Terry turned 7 months old on Monday. He is eating some solids, but he still needs formula, as infants generally can begin with solids at about 6 months old, but should typically continue with either formula or breast milk until they’re a year old.

“I go to the store to check and there’s barely anything,” Ms. Fields said. “He’s on a certain kind and I would hate to switch him when he’s been on it since he was 3½ months old, and he does well on it.”

Ms. Fields said she’s lucky that Stevie doesn’t have any allergies and doesn’t spit up much, so she can buy the store-brand formula at a cheaper price and usually with more in each container than the name brands. Stevie is on Enfamil Gentlease and is usually given the generic version of it. On Tuesday, Ms. Fields was at the Route 3 Walmart and said the store had the name brand. One 12-ounce can cost $18, and she bought two of them.

She normally buys Stevie’s formula at Sam’s Club, but checks two or three times a week and said Sam’s Club has been out of stock. When in stock, it costs $24 for a 48-ounce canister of the formula, which lasts about 2½ weeks for Stevie. Ms. Fields said the struggle to find formula at all, and the added cost when she does, has been stressful.

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