Utah health experts’ advice to parents: Don’t dilute baby formula

Efforts to get more formula on shelves are progressing, they say, but it may be weeks before the shortage eases.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) A limited supplies sign is displayed on the baby formula shelf at a grocery store Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in Salt Lake City. Parents across much of the U.S. are scrambling to find baby formula after a combination of supply disruptions and safety recalls have swept many of the leading brands off store shelves.

A nationwide shortage of baby formula has not spared Utah parents, and one expert in the state said the supply problems could have been “much better prepared for.”

“It’s getting kind of scary for families out there who can’t find the formula that their babies need,” said JoDell Geilmann-Parke, the state vendor coordinator with the Women, Infants and Children Program.

In a livestreamed update to Utah media Tuesday, Geilmann-Parke said WIC officials spoke that day to the federal Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture — and the agencies had made an agreement to reopen the Abbott Nutrition facility in Sturgis, Michigan, in the next two weeks. Even with the reopening, it would take six to eight weeks for that facility’s formula to get to store shelves.

The closure of Abbott’s Sturgis facility — caused by concerns of contamination — exacerbated a supply problem that had already been happening before the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, Geillmann-Parke said last week. The Sturgis facility produced three of Abbott’s top brands: Similac, Alimentum and EleCare.

The recall, the New York Times reported, came after “at least four babies were hospitalized with Cronobacter bacterial infections and two died after consuming its products.”

The FDA, in a guide to the formula recall it published in February, that symptoms of the infection include “poor feeding, irritability, temperature changes, jaundice, grunting breaths or abnormal body movements.”

Dr. Wendy Hobson-Rohrer, a pediatrician and associate vice president for health sciences education at University of Utah Health, advised parents in Tuesday’s livestream: “Don’t go out and buy more supply than what you need for your baby.”

Hobson-Rohrer also advised parents not to dilute formula with water to make it last longer, because formulas are made with an exact science, meaning it has proteins, minerals and carbohydrates a baby needs based on its proportions. For the same reason, she also advised against making homemade formula.

“If you start to dilute the formula, what you’re doing is diluting the calories,” she explained. “The baby will not be getting the same amount of calories and they also could get electrolyte abnormalities.”

Hobson-Roherer also said not to make any major switches — like moving to plant-based, cow or goat’s milk — without proper advice from a doctor. Switching a brand, if possible, is a solution if a parent can’t find the one they need. She suggested decreasing the original formula amount gradually.

The recall has led to a shortage in grocery stores nationwide. A spot-check of Smith’s and Harmons stores last week in the Salt Lake City area found empty shelves.

Employees at the Harmons at 3270 S. 1300 East said customers had come in asking about formula — and that the store had tried to order more product, without success. Signs at the Smith’s at 945 E. 4500 South were posted, limiting purchases of baby formula to four per customer; no such limit had been placed as of Wednesday, May 11, at Harmons.

(Palak Jayswal | The Salt Lake Tribune) Empty shelves at Smith's (845 E 4500 S) in Salt Lake City where baby formula should be on May 11, 2022. Due to a nationwide recall, there have been shortages.

Also on Tuesday, two members of Utah’s congressional delegation — Rep. Chris Stewart and Sen. Mike Lee — introduced the FORMULA (Fixing Our Regulatory Mayhem Upsetting Little Americans) Act.

The bill, according to a statement from Lee’s office, “targets supply chain disruption by temporarily waiving current protectionist trade barriers like tariffs and quotas on importation that reduce the supply and increase the price of available foreign-made formula. The bill would also waive regulations that prevent the importation of safe baby formula from abroad.”

President Joe Biden announced last Friday, May 13, that the United States was working with manufacturers to import more baby formula into the country. “We’re going to be, in a matter of weeks or less, getting significantly more formula on shelves,” Biden said.

On May 10, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the FDA’s commissioner, Dr. Robert Califf, urging them to address the shortage.

“I write to ensure the federal government is taking every available step to get to the bottom of an increasingly urgent, nationwide shortage of infant formula, including the possible connection to several infant deaths,” Romney wrote.

“Infant formulas are also not easily interchangeable: some infants develop allergies or sensitivities, and some infants require specific formulas based on other medical conditions,” Romney wrote.

The Utah senator ended his letter asking for responses within two weeks to his questions about the FDA’s investigation into the Abbott recall, and other issues within the industry. “We respect and appreciate the difficult job your agencies have in overseeing the current infant formula crisis, but we also cannot afford to waste any time finding a solution,” Romney concluded.

Geilmann-Parke said that while the shortage continues, Utah parents can take these steps:

• “Work with a pediatrician to make sure that the baby is receiving the right kind of nutrition that he or she needs.”

• “I recommend that Utah families look out for each other. If they know of a neighbor that’s looking for a specific kind of formula and they see it at a grocery store, shoot that neighbor a text, give them a heads up.”

• " Work with their grocery stores and ask them if they know when specific orders are coming in.”

Geilmann-Parke also noted that “sometimes breastfeeding works, sometimes breastfeeding doesn’t.” Also, she said, pediatricians recommend babies stick to one particular formula, so it’s hard for parents to switch their infants to new formulas, especially if they have sensitive stomachs or allergies.

“The tricky part with the formula recall and shortage is that formulas that babies are typically used to consuming are simply not available right now, and parents are having to make tough choices about ‘OK, so now what am I going to feed my baby?’ …

“For most babies under the age of 6 months, formula or breast milk is their primary source of nutrition,” Geilmann-Parke said — and without it, it’s not long before there may be serious effects on their development.