US infant formula shortage hits church-run pantries and other agencies

Empty shelves seen at a CVS store in San Antonio on May 10, 2022 illustrate the national formula shortage. (SNC Photo/Kaylee Greenlee Beal, Reuters)

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PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — A national formula shortage is hitting a number of food pantries, including those run by Catholic Social Services in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, administrators said.

“We are in short supply everywhere, and in some places there is no supply,” said Amy Stoner, director of community housing and homelessness services for the archdiocesan agency.

Patrick Walsh, manager of the agency’s Martha’s Choice Marketplace in Norristown, confirmed that customers and staff had ‘noted a shortage’ of infant formula, most of which is purchased by his team through the agency. hunger Philabundance.

Lizanne Hagedorn, director of nutritional development services for the archdiocese, said her agency has so far been able to maintain formula deliveries to the child care centers it serves, thanks to its latest fundraising campaign in January. , who raised “about 10,000 pounds”. ”

Meanwhile, Hagedorn said that although his team “(had) no problem getting the formula, that doesn’t mean we won’t do it in the future.”

National stock-out rates for infant formula soared to 43% the week of May 9, according to Virginia-based price data firm Datasembly, which predicted “shortages will continue to worsen” .

The empty shelves – where gaps first appeared in July 2021 – are due to “inflation, supply chain shortages and product recalls”, said Ben Reich, founder and CEO of the company, at CatholicPhilly.com, the archdiocesan news site.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the US Food and Drug Administration was “working around the clock to address potential shortages.”

Specifically, the agency was helping manufacturers increase production, prioritize the most needed product lines and streamline the import process for certain infant formulas, Psaki said at the May 9 news conference.

On May 12, the White House announced a series of measures to address the shortage after President Joe Biden met with retailers and manufacturers. These efforts include trying to cut red tape and speed up the production of infant formula.

The administration has said rising prices are part of the shortage problem and it also hopes to make it easier to import infant formula from overseas – which is the aim of a new bill from the House, the Formula Act of 2022.

A key driver of the shortage is a voluntary product recall announced in February by Abbott Nutrition, maker of the Similac, Alimentum and EleCare brands.

The company, a major supplier, reported powdered infant formula from its factory in Sturgis, Michigan, after complaints of bacterial infections in four infants, two of whom later died. The facility has been largely shut down pending FDA clearance to resume operations.

Meanwhile, customers at Catholic Social Services sites in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are using alternative formula brands approved by the Federal Supplementary Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

But “even with alternative brands, there is still a shortage,” said Fredeswinda Rodriguez, Cenacle administrator for the archdiocesan agency at the Padre Pio Center in Philadelphia.

And switching formulas isn’t without side effects, which is why Beth Wood, administrator of the archdiocesan agency’s Northeast Family Service Center in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia, asks her clients to “contact their pediatrician” if they need to find another brand.

Wood also advises customers “not to dilute the formula or make their own,” she said. “It’s very dangerous.”

The FDA, along with many pediatricians, have warned that homemade infant formula — recipes for which are widely available online — pose real health risks, from nutritional imbalances to contamination.

As the federal government and manufacturers work to restore inventory levels, Walsh said he is exploring ways to expand options for his customers, the majority of whom represent large and young families.

“I wish I could offer moms free and accessible lactation advice,” he said. “The impact saved in money and improved postnatal health outcomes would be enormous.”

Yet access to formula milk will remain essential, as “breastfeeding is not always possible, especially when the baby is being raised by someone other than the mother”, or when mothers “have to return to work and need the convenience” of formula, Hagedorn says.

Donations of infant formula, especially brands aimed at infants with sensitive digestive systems, are more welcome than ever, Catholic Social Services administrators said.

“We’ll be contacting the formula companies to see if we can get samples,” Wood said. “However, I know the distribution is limited.”

In Washington, U.S. Representative Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, introduced the Formula Act on May 11. He and several co-sponsors hope the measure, also known as HR 7718, will strengthen the U.S. infant formula supply and help build its supply resilience. chain disruptions to avoid a future crisis.

The bill would direct the Biden administration’s FDA to agree to an international standard for infant formula in a bid to increase imports and boost domestic supply.

The United States currently does not import foreign infant formulas because the FDA has not implemented interchangeable standards to ensure that foreign formulas comply with United States health code and regulations. , according to one of the bill’s co-sponsors, U.S. Representative Chris Smith, RN.J. .

“This critical legislation will reduce the red tape that makes this severe shortage worse and strengthen our national infant formula supply to ensure it is able to withstand future shocks,” Smith said in a statement.

He and 105 other House members also sent a letter to Biden and FDA Commissioner Robert Califf on May 11, urging the administration “to take immediate and meaningful action to resolve the crisis and ensure greater great transparency on efforts to increase the supply of formula milk”.

Christian is a senior content producer for CatholicPhilly.com, the news site for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Jerry B. Hatch