Home Features The hunt for formula: Enduring the baby formula shortage

The hunt for formula: Enduring the baby formula shortage

Rebekah Budge, the manager of Royal Crest Apartments, walked into her living room Sunday to see her two toddlers playing with baby formula and scooping it out of the can like sand.

They had found the can she kept in her diaper bag for church. Now half of it was unusable, spilled on her floor.

Overcome with a surge of emotions, Budge retreated to her room and cried in solitude.

She knew it was her fault for leaving the can there, but now four bottles worth of formula was wasted and waiting for her to vacuum it up.

A few months ago, an incident like this wouldn’t have bothered her. After all, there’s no use in crying over spilled milk, but the United States is in the middle of a baby formula shortage.

“Every little bit of formula is like gold,” Budge said.

Having been closed since February, Abbott Nutrition reopened its Sturgis, Michigan plant on June 4 after receiving the green light from the FDA to resume production. The company voluntarily recalled formula from their manufacturing facility in response to four infants who had consumed formula from that facility becoming ill with Cronobacter sakazakii or Salmonella Newport, according to the company’s press release.

Abbott is one of three major baby formula producers in the U.S. When they pulled their formula from shelves, the other companies struggled to fill the hole in the supply chain.

Similac, one of Abbott Nutrition's formula brands, is virtually the only formula on the shelf at the Rexburg Walmart.
Similac, one of Abbott Nutrition's formula brands, is virtually the only formula on the shelf at the Rexburg Walmart. Photo credit: Krysyan Edler

“Through market consolidation in the last few decades, we only have a few major brands in the U.S. that’s approved by the FDA as baby formula producers,” said Martin Ma, a professor in the economics department. “When you take one out of three major producers out of the market, that’s going to create a huge shortage.”

Ma believes labor shortage and supply chain issues stemming from the pandemic along with market consolidation are to blame for the formula shortage.

Budge’s five-month-old daughter has been living off of baby formula since she was eight hours old. Budge couldn’t produce any milk when her daughter was born.

“I was feeling really bad about not being able to provide for her physically, like with my own body — how we think most moms can — and then like going store to store, and they don’t have anything either,” Budge said.

Shortly before the shortage, her baby started throwing up and struggled to gain weight. Based on the advice of their pediatrician and a dietician, Budge tested new formulas for three weeks to find the right one for her baby’s needs. That’s when she noticed the shortage.

Budge normally hunts for formula twice a week, but she searched stores every day last week and every store within a 45-minute radius this weekend. She has checked the seven to 10 stores between Rexburg and Montpelier, where her parents live, and she frequently refreshes the pages of online retailers such as Amazon, Walmart and Walgreens.

She happened to be on her phone at 3 a.m. one morning when she saw four boxes of formula refill bags were in stock at the Idaho Falls Walmart for $200. Each box had two bags, and each bag would last about three days. Because of her Rexburg address, it wouldn’t ship to her, so she had to have it shipped to her aunt living in Idaho Falls.

Baby formula shelves sit mostly bare at the Rexburg Walmart.
Baby formula shelves sit mostly bare at the Rexburg Walmart. Photo credit: Krysyan Edler

Budge had just run out of formula when the refill bags arrived. She wonders what she would have done if her aunt didn’t live there.

“It’s like Black Friday,” Budge said. “You’re walking as fast as you can to go to the formula to see if they have it, and if they don’t, then you go as fast as you can back to your car.”

The shortage not only affects families with infants, but it’s at the forefront of the minds of expecting mothers. Daphne Wagner, a junior majoring in marriage and family studies, is due in August with her second child. Her firstborn struggled with acid reflux, which required special formula, and she worries this baby will have similar needs.

“What if he has sensitive tummy or reflux or whatever else there is out there?” Wagner said. “Because there’s a lot of different formulas, and you just never know. I worry about the things that I don’t know.”

Not knowing what formula her baby will need, she is refraining from buying any formula now — except for the one can of Similac she bought from Broulim’s. Until August, she is researching how she can increase her breast milk supply in hopes of avoiding the effects of the shortage.

“I’m just hoping for the best because I think that’s honestly all I can do is hope for the best at this point,” Wagner said.

Ma anticipates the shortage will finish by the end of July with Abbott expecting to release their EleCare formula by June 20, and the company says they’re working hard to resume production of their other brands soon, including Similac, according to their press release.

But until the shelves are fully-stocked, parents will have to continue hunting for formula to feed their infants.

“I am a hunter, and I’m hunting for my baby’s food,” Budge said.

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