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A nationwide shortage of baby formula is sending parents across state lines in search of their preferred brand as some major retail chains have begun rationing their supplies. Mallory Whitmore, a certified infant feeding specialist who runs the “Formula Mom” website, joins Ali Rogin for more on the crisis, and how parents are coping and keeping their babies fed and healthy.
A nationwide shortage of baby formula is sending parents across state lines in search of their preferred brand, and some major retail chains have started rationing their supplies. Ali Rogin has more on the crisis and how parents are coping and keeping their babies fed and healthy.
Seventy-five percent of infants receive at least some formula by the time they're six months old, according to the CDC. Formula companies, like most businesses, are dealing with supply chain issues, but on top of that, one of the largest suppliers of formula announced a recall in February.
To discuss this, I'm joined by Mallory Whitmore. She's a certified infant feeding specialist, and she runs the "Formula Mom" website.
Mallory, thank you so much for joining us.
I want to start with one of the reasons behind the shortage. Abbott Laboratories, which is the parent company of the Similac formula brand, announced a massive recall in February. But how is it that one company's recall can cause this much disruption throughout the entire marketplace?
Mallory Whitmore, Infant Feeding Specialist:
Yeah, absolutely. So, most parents don't know that there's actually only five FDA-approved infant formula manufacturers in the United States. Three of those control the very large share of the market. And so, when one of the largest, Similac, goes offline, due to a recall or something similar, it creates just a huge ripple effect in what we're able to find on the shelves.
We should note, in a statement, Abbott has said they are working "to leverage their global manufacturing and supply network, including increasing production at their plants in Europe."
Let's talk about particularly vulnerable families. About half of the infants born in the United States receive some form of supplemental nutrition funding. What are some of their specific challenges, and for their parents?
It's really tough for some families right now. The large majority of infants that receive formula through an assistance program receive WIC, Women, Infant, Children.
And so, WIC providers are aligned with one particular formula manufacturer per state. So, there are some states where the only formula provided via WIC is Similar, or was Similac. And so you've got families that are not able to get the formula that they particularly, or usually, have had covered.
For some infants who have medical issues, it's very difficult to switch formula brands. How are families that have infants with medical problems dealing with this?
It's been really tough. It's not the case that formulas are all the same. Different formulas have different ingredients. Different babies will react certain ways to new ingredients. It's not as simple as going and picking up something off the shelf.
And so, for families that have children with allergies or intolerances, we're seeing an increase in some of these digestive symptoms and digestive issues, as a result of having to do a very sudden change.
And some infants who don't even have medical issues, it can be a challenge to transition them to another form of formula, right?
Absolutely, especially a sudden transition like this. Typically, I would recommend a slower transition. You're introducing the new formula; you're seeing how baby tolerates it. With a recall or a shortage and you can't find your existing formula, it has to be a cold-turkey transition. And that can create some digestive upset for many babies, whether or not they have any sort of intolerance.
What are your recommendations for parents who are trying to extend the amount of formula that they have, or perhaps find alternatives?
What should they be thinking about?
Yeah. First, we want to talk about what I do not recommend that parents do. You never want to try to dilute your formula extra, or stretch the life of your can by adding more water. It's very dangerous to do that. It really throws off the macronutrient profile of the formula. You also never want to make your own homemade formula. Babies have very specific nutrient needs. And we want to make sure that they're getting what they need. And we can't do that with a homemade mixture.
And what about parents who are relying on generic brands?
Isn't it correct that a lot of the same generic brands are produced with the same recipe?
Absolutely, and most parents don't know that. Generic brands are a great option. They are as nutrient dense. They're fully regulated, as any name-brand formula. And you're right, the recipe is the same store to store. So your Target brand Infant Advantage formula is the same as your Wal-Mart brand. And that can really increase the number of stores that parents can look at to find a formula their baby tolerates.
And, in the time we have left, what are your thoughts on what the industry should be learning from this?
Are there improvements that can be made once this shortage is dealt with?
Absolutely. I think we need to really pay attention to the fact that a shortage like this affects our very most vulnerable citizens, which are our babies. We need to be able to do right by them. That may mean that we need to diversify the formula industry so it's not so concentrated with three big players. That may mean we need to give parents additional formula education, so that, if they're in a pinch, they know what they're looking for and what their baby could need.
Mallory Whitmore, founder of the "Formula Mom" website, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you for having me.
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Ali Rogin is a correspondent for PBS News Weekend and a foreign affairs producer at the PBS NewsHour.
Winston Wilde is a coordinating producer at PBS News Weekend.
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