As infant formula shortage intensifies, S.I. pediatrician offers advice, ideas for safe substitution

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — A massive safety recall and nationwide supply disruptions have swept many leading brands of baby formula off store shelves, resulting in months of spot shortages at pharmacies and supermarkets alike. And now, as 40% of large retail stores are reportedly out of stock, according to Datasembly, an analytics firm that collects data from 11,000 locations, many Staten Island parents are scrambling to find alternatives.

“This is such a stressful situation for parents, and we are getting many inquiries about what to do,” noted Dr. Brian McMahon, a pediatrician based in Castleton Corners and chair of pediatrics at Richmond University Medical Center (RUMC). “Yes, there are certain substitutions than can be made and ways to get your baby what he or she needs during this anxious time, but you must check with your pediatrician before making any changes.”

Dr. McMahon suggests buying online if you can, explaining that, according to his patients, e-tailers like Target.com and Amazon have reportedly been able to ship formula directly to the home even though the shelves at many brick-and-mortar stores are still empty.

A sign at the Stop and Shop in Port Richmond explains the current Similac shortage. (Tom Wrobleski/Staten Island Advance)(Tom Wrobleski/Staten Island Adv

“Ordering directly to the home seems to be working for many of the parents I talk to,” he said. “As has shopping at small markets and pharmacies. The big box stores are sold out, but many of the small mom-and-pop shops – even here on Staten Island – still have formula available.”

Particularly vulnerable to disruptions because just a handful of companies account for almost the entire U.S. supply, baby formula constraints began last year as the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in ingredients, labor, and transportation, the Associated Press has reported. Supplies were further squeezed by parents stockpiling during lockdowns.

And in February, Abbott, an Illinois-based healthcare and nutrition company, recalled Alimentum, EleCare, and Similac powdered formulas manufactured at their Sturgis, Michigan, plant following reports of babies contracting bacterial infections from those formulas. In March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the recall of additional Similac powdered formulas and the closure of the plant after more infant illnesses related to the products were reported. It’s unclear when the Abbott plant might reopen.

“At RUMC, we have currently have enough formula to meet the needs of new mothers, but we are also encouraging them to breastfeed so they will not have an issue finding formula once they arrive home,” Dr. McMahon said. “We’re also suggesting that expectant parents who intend to formula feed begin to purchase a can or two before the baby is born, and parents of newborns buy only a 10 to 14 day supply. It’s very important not to hoard at a time like this – that will only aggravate the issue.”

As infant formula shortage intensifies, SI pediatrician offers advice, ideas for safe substitution

Both SIUH and RUMC report no supply issues, but at stores throughout the borough, the stock of baby formula is limited. (Tom Wrobleski/Staten Island Advance)(Tom Wrobleski/Staten Island Adv

According to the Associated Press, President Joe Biden plans to speak with manufacturers and retailers about the plight facing families, and pediatricians and healthcare workers are urging parents who can’t find formula to contact food banks or doctor’s offices. They warn against watering down formula to stretch supplies or using online DIY recipes.

“Do not attempt to make your own formula and do not water it down in order to make it last because that is not safe,” Dr. McMahon said. “Cow’s milk should not be used either – there is no iron in it, it is too rich in protein, and the calcium phosphorous balance is out of whack. A baby’s kidneys will have a hard time dealing with the protein load in regular milk.”

Abbott said it is increasing production at its other facilities to fill the gap, including air-shipping formula from Ireland, the AP reports. The FDA also told the news agency it is working with U.S. manufacturers to increase output and streamline paperwork to allow more imports. It is also waiving enforcement of minor product labeling issues and letting Abbott release some specialty formulas to physicians and hospitals.

At the time of publication, Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH) reported no issues with its supply.

“We’re not experiencing any supply chain issues at this point,” a representative noted in a statement. “Northwell Health Procurement works directly with our vendors to ensure our hospitals are adequately supplied.”

Outside of the hospital setting, Dr. McMahon advises looking for safe substitutions.

“It’s ok to buy store brands,” he said. “A generic option is fine unless your baby needs a specific product due to metabolic or digestive issues. Parents should not, however, order an overseas product that has not been approved by the FDA.”

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