Baby formula shortage getting worse despite Biden airlifts

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The ongoing shortage of baby formula across the United States has become more acute in recent weeks, despite the Biden administration flying in millions of bottles worth of formula from across the world over the past two months.

According to the market research firm IRI, 28.3% of powdered baby formula products were out of stock at US stores for the week ending July 10 — a higher percentage than the 23.7% reported out of stock for the week ending May 22, when the shortage dominated headlines.

The most recent availability figure was a slight improvement from the previous week, when the out-of-stock percentage stood at 29.5%, the highest figure so far this year. By contrast, the normal out-of-stock range prior to the COVID-19 pandemic hovered between 5% and 7%.

In addition to less availability, consumers are facing a dearth of choices when it comes to what type of baby formula to purchase.

As of July 3, consumers were buying an average of 11 different formula products weekly, compared to 24 between 2018 and 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported last week, citing IRI.

The firm’s president of client engagement, KK Davey, told The Post that there are several reasons for the persistent shortage — including hoarding by consumers, manufacturers prioritizing certain formula packs and packaging at the expense of others, and Americans buying smaller-sized containers when they do go to the store.

“People have swung a bit more to [formula packs] less than 16 ounces in the past four to six weeks,” Davey said, “and that is a swing from larger packs before.”

The ongoing shortage of baby formula across the United States has become worse in recent weeks.
The ongoing shortage of baby formula across the United States has become worse in recent weeks.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

“Certainly, by May, there were an awful lot of mothers very concerned about when they’re going to see their favorite brand of formula,” added Joseph Antos, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “And so when it started to show up, instead of just buying one can or whatever amount a person would normally buy, people who had the money to afford it would buy numerous cans of baby formula.

“So that actually increased the shortage, because a lot of that supply is now sitting on a shelf in a lot of people’s kitchens,” he added.

Antos also blamed regulations dictating which formula states can purchase through the WIC (Women, Infant, and Children) Program, which he said had caused a “gigantic problem.”

“If you’re in a WIC program and your state’s contracted with Similac that’s all you can buy,” he explained. “So if Similac is not on the shelf, you’re out of luck.”

The shortfall remains despite the White House’s much-promoted Operation Fly Formula, in which the Pentagon is using its contracts with commercial airlines to bring the precious cargo from places like Europe and Australia to boost supply.

As of July 17, the Biden administration said it had dispatched 48 flights all over the world to retrieve foreign-made formula, with some also being trucked into the US from neighboring Mexico.

Consumers are facing less choices when it comes to what type of baby formula to purchase.
Consumers are facing less choices when it comes to what type of baby formula to purchase.
Christopher Sadowski

On Monday, the White House announced two more flights would transport more than 800,000 eight-ounce bottles worth of Nestlé Health Science Alfamino Infant and Alfamino Junior formula to JFK Airport from Switzerland on Thursday and Friday.

Those flights would bring the total number of imported eight-ounce bottle equivalents from Operation Fly Formula to more than 61 million by July 24 — around 4 million fewer than American consumers purchase weekly, according to IRI.

“This idea that some publicist in the White House came up with was really meant to impress people with the administration’s concern,” Antos said. “But it’s pretty much a drop in the bucket compared to what would normally be imported if we had regular imports of baby formula from anywhere else. We don’t … because there is a very large tariff barrier … [and] the other factor, of course, is FDA rules. FDA really makes it very difficult.”

“They made a big deal out of saying that they were going to help companies import formula, but the help really was to help them understand the numerous regulations and forms that have to be filled out,” he added. “In other words, it’s administrative. They didn’t lower any regulatory barriers.”

President Biden launched Operation Fly Formula in mid-May as part of a last-ditch scramble to replenish shelves, hospitals and home health care providers following a massive decrease in supply after the closure of the country’s largest plant in February.

The Michigan factory, operated by Abbott Laboratories, restarted operations last month — only to shut them down again after storms flooded part of the plant. The company said the factory had reopened July 1 and restarted production of EleCare formula with the goal of shipping packs out in the next few weeks.

On the ground, supermarket officials aren’t seeing a change. 

Kieth Milligran, who controls Piggly Wiggly stores in Georgia and Alabama, told the Journal last week that his stores are only offering about five of the 30 formula products they usually sell. 

“It has not improved at all,” he told the outlet, adding that in late spring his stores were selling 10 different formula products. 

Kroger told the Journal that in order to maintain supply, it was limiting purchases to four formula containers per customer.

On Monday, Antos told The Post that the current out-of-stock levels would likely remain consistent “for the next couple of months” at least.

“It takes a while to refill the supply chain,” he said. “Even when you’re not crossing the ocean, we still have a supply chain problem in this country.”

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