Parents nationwide struggle with a critical baby formula shortage

A baby formula shortage has become a major problem for parents around the U.S., one without quick solutions. About 40 percent of formula is out of stock nationwide due to supply chain disruptions, inflation and a recall by one of the biggest producers. Meanwhile, the White House announced steps to address the shortage. Brian Dittmeier, of the National WIC Association, joins Ali Rogin to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The shortage of baby formula has grown into a major challenge for parents all around the country.

    Today, President Biden defended the administration's response, saying his team responded as soon as it understood the problem, although it began months ago. When pressed on whether he could have acted more quickly, the president said — quote — "If we had in better mind-readers, I guess we could have."

    Ali Rogin looks at the latest, what the administration is doing and how parents are coping.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Judy, 40 percent of formula is out of stock in stores nationwide. That's a 20-fold increase since this time last year.

    Supply chain disruptions, inflation and a recall by one of the biggest producers have worsened the shortage. Parents are struggling.

    Here's some of what they told us.

  • Jessica Cohen Taubman, Maryland:

    The baby formula shortage came to my attention a few months ago, when there was a big recall for a lot of formula products that we use for our no 7-month-old.

    And we switched to a formula that was really popular, very common, which made it very easy to find online virtually any store we went to. But, today-, with the shortage, it has actually become really competitive.

  • Caitlin Chlosta, Puerto Rico:

    I do feel like the shortage has been heightened. We are over here in Puerto Rico, so not only do we have the shortages showing up on the shelves, but also the transit times for new formula to arrive on the island has been extended.

  • Helena-Nikolai Fujishin, Washington:

    Having a hormonal disorder, I haven't been able to produce as much milk as he needs. And so I have been supplementing with formula.

    The formula shortage has greatly impacted our family and given us high anxiety, because, without it, we wouldn't be able to feed him properly.

  • Emily Fialho, Massachusetts:

    My daughter was on the standard formula that you should be able to find very easily in stores. And we weren't able to. It was just completely empty shelves. So we ended up taking the financial hit and signing up for the subscription formula.

  • Jessica Cohen Taubman:

    I'm sending out family and friends, especially those living in other states, telling them to keep an eye out for the particular brand that we use and the type that we use.

  • Helena-Nikolai Fujishin:

    Right now, we're working on getting my friend from Canada to bring down the equivalent of the formula that he takes, which, unfortunately, is only one.

  • Caitlin Chlosta:

    I have been paying a lot more to get my formula than I normally would. So, on top of the formula cost itself, I'm paying for the flat rate shipping through the post office because they treat Puerto Rico like a state, whereas, if I have a formula being shipped by UPS or FedEx, they actually treat Puerto Rico in international shipping.

  • Helena-Nikolai Fujishin:

    Hopefully, for all of us, formula will be more abundant in places, especially rural areas, where people cannot go to cities or access supplies via the Internet.

    In the meantime, there are lots of mom groups online that you can join and contact. And people like me have been posting where we find certain formulas.

  • Jessica Cohen Taubman:

    Sometimes, it seems like, when we're not getting support from the places where we should be getting it, moms are there to help each other. And that's really powerful. Moms really, I think, keep the world going. I think we could solve any problem.

    I think we should be in charge of the world for a few days. See how much we get done.

  • Ali Rogin:

    The White House announced three steps yesterday to address the shortage. It said it would urge states to expand the options for parents receiving federal WIC benefits to buy baby formula.

    The president is also asking the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, and state attorneys general to crack down on price gouging, and the FDA will take new measures to increase imports in the future.

    Joining me now is Brian Dittmeier. He's the senior director of public policy for the National WIC Association. WIC serves about half of all infants born in the United States.

    Brian, thank you so much for joining us.

    We just heard from parents who are really struggling to access and afford formula. What advice does the National WIC Association have for parents?

  • Brian Dittmeier, National WIC Association:

    Well, we know this is an extraordinarily stressful time for parents, and we keep hearing stories of parents who have to go five or six stores before they find a can of formula.

    And so some of the advice that we have is around mitigation strategies, so identifying where in your community there's supply. It could vary because this is a highly localized issue. And so it may be the store one day. Couple weeks later, it may be the food bank.

    But I think an important piece to also be mindful of is to avoid risky infant feeding practices that could lead to long-term health consequences for your infant. So stay away from homemade infant formula recipes. Do not dilute your formula, and do not introduce cow's milk before year one.

  • Ali Rogin:

    The White House has been under pressure to do more, especially since this recall that triggered the shortage happened three months ago already.

    Do you think the White House has done enough?

  • Brian Dittmeier:

    I think the White House has been leading a great interagency effort from day one of this recall.

    And while there's a lot of steps that have been taken, a lot of steps that are going to be taken in the next couple of days, I think one of the most concerning pieces of this is just how highly centralized the infant formula marketplace is.

    There's only four companies that command about 90 percent of the domestic infant formula supply. And so we need to take a look, a hard look at this industry, and ask ourselves the question of, why did we let one plant closing for a food safety issue for a couple of weeks result in this level of disruption to the marketplace and to the consumers for such an essential product?

  • Ali Rogin:

    Absolutely.

    Now, as we mentioned, half of the nation's infants received WIC benefits. Prior to this shortage, WIC recipients could really only access one brand of formula, depending on what state they're in.

    I understand that some state WIC programs have already taken steps to expand those options. What have they done? And what additional effect, if any, will this announcement that the White House put out yesterday have?

  • Brian Dittmeier:

    It's really a curious question, why we allow WIC families to only have access to one brand of infant formula in the first place.

    We know that there's a number of steps put in place to expand the brands and the container sizes that are available to WIC customers. Really, I think one of the messages coming out of USDA consistently through this product recall is, we have to take every flexibility possible to make sure that the WIC consumer is treated like any other member of the general shopping public during this recall.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But, to be clear, many of these states have already expanded this eligibility, right? They did that shortly after this recall was announced and these shortages began to manifest themselves.

  • Brian Dittmeier:

    I think that it's been a holistic effort here.

    And so USDA has been working from day one to enact what flexibilities exist. But one of the pieces we recognize as well is that the program was not necessarily built for this moment. But we also are, again, really focused on the market consolidation.

    And I think that's the concerning factor here, because the WIC program could use whatever flexibilities it has. It could use flexibilities that are built into it. But if we do not have a resilient supply chain moving forward, then we're not going to be able to serve the need of all infants in this country, but particularly infants in low-income families,

  • Ali Rogin:

    In terms of expanding access to imports, which the White House has also said it wants to do, what options are there, given how stringent U.S. regulations are?

  • Brian Dittmeier:

    I'm excited to see what FDA announces in the coming days.

    But we recognize that, historically, infant formula in this country has been manufactured domestically. And it's largely because of the FDA rules around product safety. If there's one lesson that we have learned throughout this product recall, it's that we have to put the safety of this product first.

    And I think that, as we explore what flexibilities exist as far as imports, we need to be mindful of keeping that guiding principle of both safe, but accessible infant formula for all of the infants in this country.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Brian Dittmeier with the National WIC Association, thank you so much for your time.

  • Brian Dittmeier:

    Thank you.

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