Baby formula crisis deepens in the US: Out-of-stock rate hits 40% as parents forced to search for food

The White House has tried to reassure the public, stating that guaranteeing supply is its top priority

A sign this Wednesday at a store in Salt Lake City.
A sign this Wednesday at a store in Salt Lake City.Rick Bowmer (AP)

The infant formula supply crisis in the United States, which has dragged on since last year, is worsening by the day, to the point of forcing the White House to reassure hundreds of thousands of parents – many of whom are putting in long car journeys in search of stock – that guaranteeing the supply of infant formula for all is a top priority of the Joe Biden administration.

For months, as a result of the disruption to supply chains, supermarkets and pharmacies across the country have struggled to stock enough baby formula, even though manufacturers say factories and labs are running at full capacity.

The out-of-stock rate for infant formula hovered between 2% and 8% in the first half of 2021, but skyrocketed last July. Between November 2021 and early April 2022, rates hovered around 31%, according to Datasembly. By the end of April, it hit close to 40%.

In addition to the supply shortages that have paralyzed the activity of some sectors, such as the automotive industry, a perfect storm hit supermarkets at the beginning of the year. And infant formula was hardest hit by the crisis. In six states, more than half of the available baby formula was completely sold out during the week of April 24, according to Datasembly. The shortage is especially acute in places like Tennessee, Missouri and Iowa.

The combination of several factors, including inflation at historical highs, the disruption of supply chains and the withdrawal of some products for health reasons, has left many American parents with nursing children out of options. The restrictions on purchases have been an immediate consequence: the large pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens confirmed that they have decided to limit each purchase to three containers per customer. The retail chain Target, one of the largest in the country, has also limited the online purchase of these products to four per customer.

Asked about it in her daily press conference, the White House spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, assured on Monday that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will ensure the adequate supply of the product. That includes, Psaki said, “working with major manufacturers to ensure they ramp up production, optimize their supply lines, product sizes to expand capacity and prioritize the lines most in demand.”

Psaki stressed the need to speed up entry permits for imported products, as well as to guarantee the supply of specialized formulas, some of which are required in medical treatments.

The supply crisis, which has created images of empty shelves in supermarkets and pharmacies and triggered a store-to-store pilgrimage in the hardest-hit states, has also been worsened by the recent FDA-ordered closure of a formula manufacturing plant in Michigan, owned by one of the nation’s leading producers. The closure of the facility followed the withdrawal of three lines of that brand due to the potential presence of bacteria, including salmonella.

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