Major news sources and healthcare professionals have warned of a recent shortage in breast milk in the US. Many retail outlets are unable to stock baby formulas, which has expectedly strained many families that have young children.
According to the BBC, retail research firm Datasembly revealed that nearly 43% of regular baby formula products were unavailable across US stores in the first week of May. This rate soared higher in Iowa, Texas, and Tennessee among other states.
This shortage has manifested both in the availability of donated breast milk and baby formula. Families in the US have grown increasingly desperate for breast milk amidst the prevailing scarcity. Here are some of the reasons for this reported shortage.
Supply Chain Disruptions
Nearly all of the formula produced in the US is concentrated among brands like Reckitt Benckiser, Perrigo, Nestle USA, and Abbott Nutrition. These brands were already experiencing supply chain challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic that affected human resources and financial welfare.
Reports from the Associated Press indicate that supply chain interruptions in the form of safety recalls are to blame for the particular shortage in baby formula. Abbott Nutrition, a large manufacturer of powdered infant formula, rolled back some operations and recalled products after uncovering contamination in the production process that rendered much of the product unsafe for consumption.
In February 2022, Abbott Nutrition initiated a voluntary recall in response to bacterial infections that resulted in the hospitalization of four infants, two of whom died, after they consumed the brand’s baby formula. Production in the company’s plant in Sturgis, Michigan was halted and subsequently, the factory operations were shut down.
The Justice Department filed a complaint against the manufacturer, citing that it had failed to comply with quality and safety regulations that included protection against the risk of contamination. Company officials from Abbott regretted the situation and stated the firm’s resolution to take corrective actions and implement improvements in the manufacturing process.
This shortage has disproportionately affected low-income communities and vulnerable infants. Scarcity has prompted people to pay huge mark-ups on purchases and travel long distances to find the critical product.
Reduced Donation during recovery from Covid-19 pandemic
According to NBC News, medical professionals indicate that despite general awareness about donating hair, organs, and blood, people know very little about donating breast milk. Many people still do not know that breast milk can be donated and is available at multiple milk banks across the US.
It is worth noting that donated breast milk is subject to intense scrutiny before it can be accepted into respective milk banks. Accredited banks first screen donors through blood tests, in-person questioning, and documented clearance from a physician. The milk from donors is pasteurized and further tested to ascertain the absence of pathogens.
Based on these strict procedures, breast milk from unknown sources is frowned upon, since there are no accountable means for ensuring the origin, purity, and safety of the product. Many people have been known to dilute breast milk with cow’s milk or even water, adding to the potential of other contaminants such as bacteria.
The emergence of the Covid-19 added further pressure on the means of obtaining safe breast milk, resulting from stricter health protocols in general. This explains how milk banks experienced increased demand pressure over the past few years as fewer people were able to donate breast milk.
Dangers of the Breast Milk Shortage
This shortage has not only resulted in infant starvation, but also desperation that has seen many Americans turn to ancient homemade recipes for baby formula. The BBC reports that a 1950s recipe has been circulating on the internet, to which medical professionals have strongly objected.
The standards by which current baby formula is made differ greatly from that used in the 20th century. Scientific research has allowed medical professionals and manufacturers alike to study breast milk and infant nutrition, thus understanding it better.
Signs of Relief
This pressing situation has prompted similar action from President Biden who invoked the Defense Production Act to boost the production of baby formula. Furthermore, the President ordered the Pentagon to source shipments of the product from abroad.
NBC News reports some light at the end of the tunnel in the form of increased awareness of the importance of donating breast milk amidst the biting shortage. This is however more complex than it sounds since a majority of donated human milk in non-profit milk banks is earmarked for infants with certain medical conditions.
This is because babies in the neonatal care intensive unit have historically fared better when put on a diet of human milk. A news article from The Guardian cited benefits such as less chance of infections, sepsis, and less risk of retinopathy of prematurity that causes blindness in many preterm babies.
Breast milk has also been found to help overcome other potentially devastating conditions such as necrotizing enterocolitis which is a leading cause of death in premature babies. Medical professionals are therefore urging those who feel compelled to help to donate breast milk since the need is quite urgent and widespread.
The breast milk shortage has hit the U.S. hard, and many key stakeholders have reacted accordingly. Abbott, the manufacturer of the Similac brand that is popular in North America, has reached an agreement with the FDA to resume production. Stock across store shelves is expected to resume normal levels in a few weeks.
In the absence of baby formula stock in retail stores, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents of infants to avoid big box stores with low suppliers and to switch to store brands unless ill-recommended by medical professionals. For more detailed guidance, contact local pediatricians who can recommend available and safe alternatives to formula.
BBC News: Baby formula shortage. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-61485009
NBC News: Breast milk banks get surge in calls from parents amid baby formula shortage. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/baby-formula-shortage-strain-breast-milk-banks-rcna28583
USA News: Baby Formula Shortage Fueling Spike in Milk Bank Interest. https://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2022-05-13/baby-formula-shortage-fueling-spike-in-milk-bank-interest
The Guardian: US Breast Milk Shortage. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jan/26/us-breast-milk-shortage-children-pandemic