Wed. Aug 17th, 2022

Like so many parents with young children, Raquel Robertson is exhausted.

But she also feels a sense of helplessness as she struggles to find the baby formula she needs to feed her three-month-old daughter, Penelope.

“It’s very discouraging as a parent, and makes me feel guilty,” she said.

“Because you can not really do anything for your child.”

Ms Robertson lives on a military base in California in the middle of the Mojave desert, where she says supplies can be limited at the best of times.

However, a severe baby formula shortage in the United States has made life much more difficult.

The new mother is driving up to 4 hours at a time to try to buy the specific type of product required by her daughter.

A young woman lays on a bed with a tiny baby snuggled into her chest.  The baby is sleeping peacefully, the woman smiles
Raquel Robertson has been struggling to feed her baby Penelope during the ongoing formula shortage.(Supplied: Raquel Robertson)

“Penelope is anemic so it’s extremely difficult to find something that helps the iron stick. And I’m also anemic,” she said.

“So breastfeeding, I wish that would be enough for them. But it’s not, unfortunately.

“Having to find that specific formula right now is impossible. Finding substitutes is also very, very difficult because if it’s not the exact one, it can always hurt the baby.”

Why has America’s baby formula supply dried up?

Supplies of baby formula first started to tighten across the US in the early stages of the pandemic, as a result of panic buying and supply chain challenges.

But the problems were exacerbated in February when major manufacturer Abbott recalled several types of product and closed its Michigan plant in response to rare bacterial infections in four babies, two of whom died.

It left a huge gap in the market which other producers could not quickly fill.

A row of shelves in a US supermarket, with only a few cans of baby formula on display
Supply disruptions and a massive safety recall have swept many leading brands off the shelves.(AP: Michael Conroy)

Soon, parents in search of baby formula found empty shelves at supermarkets and pharmacies.

“Usually with baby formula, it is one of those products that is fairly stable in demand, it does not change much, there’s no seasonality,” said Rudi Leuschner, an associate professor at Rutgers Business School.

“So the supply chain was made to go with one speed and one speed only.”

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The Michigan plant was a large producer of specialty formulas, according to Steven Abrams, a professor of paediatrics at the University of Texas as Austin’s Dell Medical School.

He said the shutdown further complicated the situation for parents of children with special dietary needs.

“There are a number of babies that have severe allergies or have special diseases where they can only get one type of formula,” he said.

Sheila Jackson Lee in a black mask hands a bottle of baby formula through a car window
Some US states are holding baby formula drives to help parents through the shortage. (AP: David J. Phillip)

“And for those babies, because those formulas were particularly affected, it’s been a real crisis.”

Abbott says there is “no conclusive evidence” to link its formulas to the bacterial diseases and it has now reached an agreement with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to work towards reopening the plant.

However, the company says it will take another six to eight weeks after production resumes for the formula to hit the shelves.

Australian baby formula potentially headed for the US

About 98 per cent of the baby formula consumed in the US is produced domestically.

But the shortage has prompted authorities to start looking elsewhere.

Amid increasing political pressure to solve the crisis, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to speed up local production.

He has also launched what is known as ‘Operation Fly Formula’, using federal plans to pick up supplies from overseas.

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The FDA is temporarily relaxing its strict importation rules to make it easier to bring in baby formula, with a senior White House official pointing to Australia as a possible source.

The government agency promoting Australian trade and investment, Austrade, said it was working with local producers to try to fast track their ability to fill demand.

“With world class baby formula products and a strong trading relationship under the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement, Australia is doing what it can to help the US address its baby formula shortage,” a spokesperson told the ABC.

“Australia is a global leader in quality baby formula products with world class safety and biosecurity standards.”

Australian parents have previously complained of baby formula shortages caused by personal shoppers known as “Daigou” shipping tins to China, where a safety scandal more than a decade ago drove up demand for Australian-made products.

Parents warned not to make their own formula

Many families in the US are turning to social media to try to buy, sell and trade formula.

While some posts celebrate other parents for going out of their way to help each other, alerts about scams and price gouging are also common.

A woman fills a beaker with frozen breast milk from a packet
Demand for donated breast milk has dramatically increased amid the formula shortage. (AP: David Zalubowski)

Ms Robertson has noticed tins that would normally sell for around $ US30 ($ 43) being advertised for more than $ US100.

“That’s kind of greedy, knowing that these babies are starving, there’s babies out here that need that,” she said.

Professor Abrams urged desperate parents against trying to make their own formula or diluting their existing supplies, saying it was “flat out not safe.”

And he warned other nations to learn from the US experience.

“I think every country probably needs to take this as a good opportunity to take a look at its supply chain,” he said.

“And make sure it’s able to take a single formula company going down.”

A young woman lays on a bed with her baby on her chest.  They both look tired but happy
Parents like Raquel Robertson are desperate for interventions to help solve the supply issue.(Supplied: Raquel Robertson)

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