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What's behind the baby formula shortage in the U.S?

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The nationwide baby formula shortage is making some parents frantic, and it's also raising questions about how such a critical product could be in short supply in one of the richest nations in the world. Joining us now with some answers is Helena Bottemiller Evich. She's a food and agriculture reporter for Politico. Welcome.

HELENA BOTTEMILLER EVICH: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: Do we know how severe the shortage actually is? Like - and who and what places may be getting hit the hardest?

EVICH: What I'm hearing is every community, every region, is quite different. The data suggests we're anywhere from about 70% stocked to, you know, 60% range. That's sort of the national averages I'm seeing. But, you know, that really doesn't make any difference if you're a parent and you can't find what you need.

RASCOE: I know on Twitter you described the shortage as, like, a slow-moving train wreck. What made everything get off track?

EVICH: You know, we don't have a full picture, but, you know, we are seeing supply chain hiccups generally. And I think infant formula has been part of that, you know? And then we had a massive recall in February from Abbott Nutrition - over four reports of infant hospitalization and two deaths tied to a bacterial infection. So this really exacerbated an already strained situation.

RASCOE: And so this recall - this is about this plant that's in Sturgis, Mich. And this plant - it's owned by Abbott Nutrition. So this plant has not been operating since - what? - February.

EVICH: It has been shut down. FDA and leaders at Abbott have been in talks to figure out how best to reopen this plant. This plant was a major supplier of infant formula nationally. It was also the major, if not a near-monopoly, producer of these specialty formulas known as amino acid or elemental formulas that are crucial, sometimes the sole nutrition, for thousands of Americans with special medical needs. And so the situation for them is actually quite urgent.

RASCOE: And so, like, these specialty formulas - these are for babies - and not just babies, but older people, people with conditions so that they can't break down food. So what are parents doing? Are they trying to, like, stretch it out?

EVICH: So far, the parents I've been talking to have been able to get supply, but they are running low. Like, they may have days of supply. And so it's incredibly stressful. For some of these conditions, like one that's known as MSUD, your body doesn't break down proteins. So you have to consume, basically, the amino acids directly. And I think these families feel very abandoned by Abbott and the government and the media because they're really getting lost in this conversation. As you know, it's not just infants. It's adults. It's children. And these products are truly lifelines for them.

RASCOE: What's the Food and Drug Administration's role in this crisis?

EVICH: So one of the reasons I describe this as a slow-moving train wreck is because so much has come out since the recall that has sort of painted a picture of a slow government response to begin with. So the recall was in February, but we learned pretty soon after that the first infant hospitalization tied to this plant was in September. We then later learned there was a whistleblower, a former employee who had worked in this plant, who had raised food safety concerns directly to top FDA officials. And that whistleblower was not interviewed until December. And FDA finally went back into that plant January 31, and the recall was February 17. So that timeline, spanning from September to February, probably made this recall a lot bigger. And there's so many issues here. There's also the question of consolidation. You know, four companies control nearly 90% of the U.S. formula market. And there are a lot of questions right now about how resilient our supply chain really is, and whether or not we need more competition to make it better able to withstand these shocks.

RASCOE: Finally, you know, obviously, not everyone can breastfeed. This is affecting not just infants, as well. Is there any relief in sight for caregivers who are struggling right now to get the formula they need?

EVICH: I would tell parents to hang in there. Try not to hoard. Buy what you need. Local parent groups are a great way to find formula if you're looking for a specific type. There's exchanges online. You know, be really careful. There's also fraudsters out there. But try your food bank. But talk to your doctor before you do anything that is not recommended, like making your own formula or watering it down. I do think the supply will get better. I think for a while, though, we're going to have a lot of limitations on the types of brands that are available and how stocked the shelves look.

RASCOE: That's Helena Bottemiller Evich, senior food and agriculture reporter from Politico. Thank you so much for being with us.

EVICH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.