Despite the passage of months since the peak of the formula supply crisis, numerous families continue to face difficulties in locating formula. Experts within the industry suggest that replenishing store shelves entirely will require a considerable amount of time.
Is there still a shortage, technically? Yes, although the overall supply has improved. According to industry insiders, the shortage is now more uneven, varying based on location and product type.
The FDA states that the situation is far less dire than during the peak of the infant formula shortage when over 40 percent of formulas were out of stock nationwide. As of November 20, approximately 12.5 percent of formula baby powder was out of stock across the country, which is very close to pre-shortage levels, according to data from IRI, a market research firm based in Chicago.
While progress has been made, the FDA spokesperson acknowledges that the mission is not yet accomplished. The supply chain has become stronger, and more products are available to parents and caregivers. However, there are still parents who struggle to find formula or their specific type of formula on store shelves. The FDA is aware of their frustration and continues to make efforts to ensure that parents can access safe and nutritious infant formula whenever and wherever they need it.
The lingering formula shortage remains a significant concern for many parents, according to Jimmy Chen, an associate professor at Bucknell University. This shortage affects demand and can lead to panic-buying behavior. Chen explains that, similar to toilet paper, infant formula has no substitute, making it a perfect product to trigger panic buying in times of shortages. Parents fearing a future shortage tend to stock up on formula, which can quickly deplete retailers' shelves.
During the height of the shortage, many big box stores implemented limits on the amount of formula customers could purchase at once to maintain stocked shelves. Some stores still maintain quota policies as of November, requiring customers to visit multiple stores to find what they need. CVS Health and Walgreens, for example, have a three-product limit per customer. Walgreens has also expanded its inventory to include popular European brands.
Specialty formulas for people with allergies, sensitive digestion, or specific nutritional needs are still hard to find, according to Jamila Taylor, an advocacy leader for the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The formula shortage has become hyper-localized, with varying levels of stock in different regions due to ongoing distribution challenges.
To increase the supply, several measures have been taken. The USDA issued waivers to provide low-income families with additional formula options, including alternate sizes and brands. The Biden administration invoked the Defense Production Act to prioritize formula manufacturing and utilized military aircraft to import formula from overseas. An emergency spending bill was passed, and formula manufacturers testified before the Committee on Energy and Commerce. The FDA eased import regulations, allowing the shipment of powdered formula from other countries. The agency also extended compliance deadlines for new entrants to the U.S. market. Operation Fly Formula was launched to import infant formula not typically found on U.S. shelves.
The pandemic and inflation have exacerbated the problem. The pandemic negatively impacted the economy, disrupted the global supply chain, and contributed to rising inflation. Rising costs at grocery stores, especially for women, have affected the purchase of formula. In the past year alone, the average cost of baby formula products increased by 18 percent.
Low-income parents, particularly women of color, who rely on formula at higher rates, continue to face the most difficulty in finding infant formula. WIC families are encouraged to seek support and resources from local WIC clinics. The formula shortage disproportionately affects single mothers with limited resources and transportation options. Historical inequities based on race and class play a significant role in determining who suffers the most.
The formula industry has been challenging to break into due to extensive regulations and high entry barriers. Only a few dominant companies, such as Abbott, Reckitt, and Gerber, produce the majority of infant formula in the United States. Strict regulations, including clinical studies, safety tests.
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