Baby Formula Is Getting Even Harder to Find

It is getting harder for Haley Hodge to find baby formula to feed her 3-month-old.

When her son, born six weeks premature, first left the hospital in late February, she would often drive to two stores in Louisville, Ky., before finding some. Recently she had to go to 12 stores in town, and her sister de ella hit another six in nearby La Grange, Ky. Together, they only came up with enough formula for about 10 days.

“It is really devastating,” said the 26-year-old, whose son was prescribed a high-calorie baby formula he’ll need until he’s 1. “I didn’t think that I would get to the point where I’m constantly worried—can I feed my child?”

Baby formula has been scarce for months in stores and online, hurt by Covid-19 pandemic-related supply-chain issues that caused shortages of many other products, including sneakers and pet food. Shortages were exacerbated by a February recall by

Abbott Laboratories,

one of the biggest formula manufacturers, after consumer complaints of bacteria contamination that could cause severe illness in infants.

major stores have limited how much formula shoppers can buy. And manufacturers are trying to produce more of it. Still, the shortage has worsened.

Nationwide, 40% of the most popular baby formula brands were out of stock in the week starting April 24, up from 31% two weeks earlier, according to Datasembly, which tracks out-of-stock messages on retailers’ websites and apps. That is the highest rate since it started rising above 10% in November. A normal rate is less than 10%.

The Abbott recall, which was later expanded, covered some powdered formula made at its Sturgis, Mich., plant, including versions of its Similac, Alimentum and EleCare brands. Five infants who consumed the products have been hospitalized, and two have died, according to the Food and Drug Administration

The FDA is investigating the complaints. An Abbott spokeswoman said Friday that after reviewing available data, the company found that the formula made at its Sturgis facility “is not likely the source of infection in the reported cases and that there was not an outbreak caused by products from the facility.”

Abbott has said it is working with the FDA to restart production at the Sturgis plant. In the meantime, the company is trying to make more formula available, working to increase Similac production at other FDA-registered facilities, shipping formula from Europe by air and adding facilities capable of producing formula for infants with specific needs.

The recall has rippled across the broader market.

A spokeswoman for

Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC,

which makes formula brand Enfamil, said it is running its factories 24 hours a day, seven days a week to get more formula to stores. She said the company is also stepping up its safety standards.

“We are taking no chances when it comes to quality and safety,” she said.

Rachna Shah, a supply chain professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, said she doesn’t expect the shortage to ease soon.

The recall is the main cause for the shortage, she said, and regulations make it hard to expand manufacturing. Plus, news of the recall and shortages are likely causing panic buying and hoarding.

“I expect it to worsen before it gets better,” said Ms. Shah.

Bridget Young, an assistant professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said parents struggling to find formula should call their pediatrician to see if they have samples or can suggest other brands.

Dr. Young said babies that don’t have health issues can usually be switched to another brand of formula safely. She suggested parents and guardians check to make sure the ingredients are the same on the label to reduce the chances of causing an upset stomach.

Parents of babies who require hypoallergenic or other special formulas should check with their doctors first, said Dr. Young, who also runs a baby formula tips website. No one should try to make their own formula at home, she said, since it could cause serious illness.

Write to Joseph Pisani at

Corrections & Amplifications
Abbott Laboratories expanded its recall for some powdered baby formula in February. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said it was expanded in March. (Corrected on May 6.)

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