By Anne Blythe

Mothers in Wake County have come together in a Facebook group to alert people to stores that have baby formula on their shelves and help get supplies to those in need.

On Formula Exchange Wake County NC, moms have been posting messages about the kinds of formula they are seeking. Others post photos of store shelves that are not empty and alert the group about the location of supplies that have been in shortage for months.

Molly Ingraham, a makeup artist with her own business, started the formula exchange page in Wake County.

You’ll see such posts as “I have a sample can of Nutramigen for anyone who wants it! I’m in #cary.”

Then a quick response. “I’ll take it! That’s what my 3 month old uses.”

On Tuesday afternoon, this particular message went out to the 308 members of the expanding group: 

“I have 4 cans of Gerber Extensive Available

Let me know if interested please thanks

Expires 2023″

“I don’t know that I have a great system, but many moms in the area (and everywhere) have been working to connect people with formula via social media,” Ingraham explained in an email exchange with NC Health News. “I’m in a couple of Facebook groups and Instagram has been helpful to see what some people have and to share if they see anything at the store!”

These kinds of workarounds have come about in the wake of the closing of an Abbott Laboratories plant in Sturgis, Michigan. In February, Abbott, one of the country’s largest suppliers of Similac and other powder formulas with fully 40 percent of market share, recalled products made in that plant.

Alone, the Sturgis plant manufactures almost 90 percent of the Similac made in the U.S. according to Food Safety News.

Microscopic invaders create big problem

Federal investigators were looking into the safety of the plant after consumers reported that four infants who had been fed with formula made at the Michigan plant had become sick. Three had infections with Cronobacter sakazakii which can cause systemic infections or meningitis particularly in small infants. Another child was infected with Salmonella Newport, a type of intestinal bacteria. 

In a February statement, Abbott said that during testing in their Sturgis facility, the company found evidence of Cronobacter sakazakii in the plant in non-product contact areas. Company officials noted they had learned of the death of an infant who tested positive for Cronobacter sakazakii.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later added another infant to the investigation after an additional Cronobacter sakazakii infection was discovered. All told, four infants were sickened and two have died. 

The plant shut down after the recall, leading to supply chain problems that have had a rippling effect, causing challenges nationwide.

This week, the Food and Drug Administration and Abbott reached an agreement in federal court about the corrective action plan the company will take to get the plant running again. In the meantime, the company is importing formula made in one of its Irish factories.

“Today’s action means that Abbott Nutrition has agreed to address certain issues that the agency identified at their infant formula production facility in Michigan,” Robert M. Califf, the FDA commissioner, said in prepared remarks. “The public should rest assured that the agency will do everything possible to continue ensuring that infant and other specialty formulas produced by the company meet the FDA’s safety and quality standards, which American consumers have come to expect and deserve.”

Even though the company and federal agencies have reached an agreement, it will take several weeks until store shelves fill again.

“We recognize the hardships that parents and caregivers have faced in obtaining infant formula and the FDA is focused on boosting the availability of the country’s supply of these products, including new steps regarding importation,” Califf added. “We are also taking a look at the supply of infant formulas developed by manufacturers across the country and around the world to determine if a reallocation of their distribution can be made to help get the right product to the right place, at the right time.”

In the meantime

In North Carolina, the state Department of Health and Human Services has developed a list of “dos” and “don’ts” for families struggling to find formula. It includes:

  • Do NOT water down your baby’s formula to make it last longer. That can be dangerous and interfere with their ability to absorb nutrients.
  • Do NOT try to make homemade formula.
  • Do NOT try to start your baby on toddler formula before their first birthday.
  • Do NOT buy formula from unknown individuals, online resellers or from overseas. Stick with reputable retailers.
  • DO work with your child’s health care provider to figure out the best feeding plan if you cannot find the formula you need.
  • IF you are supplementing breast-feeding with iron-fortified formula and can increase your breast-feeding, that also is an option, DHHS advises.
  • IF your child is not sensitive to cow’s milk, some generic and comparable brands are available from smaller manufacturers. Organic options are generally OK, too, according to DHHS.

For participants in WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, there are options to look into when formula is not available in local stores. Contact your local WIC agency first. DHHS has been working with local WIC agencies to place bulk orders with manufacturers to make sure families get the help they need.

Liz Waine, the mother of two young daughters, a 16-month-old and one born only three weeks ago, has been nursing and pumping breast milk, hoping formula supplies increase soon. She nursed her first daughter for five months and wonders what will happen if the formula shortage is still challenging families when her second daughter gets to that age.

“What if I wasn’t able to nurse right off the bat,” Waine, a Carteret County resident, said. “My heart goes out to women struggling to find formula.”

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Anne Blythe

Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.

One reply on “How NC families are coping with the formula shortage”

  1. There is a company called ByHeart who makes formula and it is as close to breast mild as you can get. They have plenty of formula that you can order online that is safe and doctor approved. That had a story on CBS about this company and how they meet the strict standards of wholesome infant formula as much as the bigger companies do and they have enough for anyone that can not find formula.

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