For American parents, perhaps the most pressing issue of the day is the inability to find baby formula on the store shelves.
Formula, a food product manufactured usually from cow's milk, soy, or protein hydrolysate and purposed for fulfilling the dietary needs of an infant, is experiencing a nationwide retail shortage, and that problem has hit Somerset and Pulaski County just as much as anywhere else. The result is an impact on not just the average consumer but also social programs which help mothers get the supplies they need for their developing child.
Scott McPeek, manager of the local Walmart store, said his is one of the multitude of retailers having a hard time getting infant formula in stock.
"We're definitely seeing it with a lot of the different items — not every item, we have a few varieties, but as far as the whole category goes, yeah, we definitely see a larger (shortage) than we would normally see," he said.
McPeek traced the difficulties back to a "large recall" of baby formula — "I think that's been the largest portion of it" — which affected a lot of different brands.
"From my understanding, some of the plants have been shut down," he said. "I think the supply chain has also impacted it as well. So I think it's a combination of both."
According to the Associated Press in February, Abbott Nutrition recalled several major brands of powdered formula and shut down its Sturgis, Michigan, factory when federal officials began investigating four babies who suffered bacterial infections after consuming formula from the facility. Abbott is one of only a handful of companies that produce the vast majority of the U.S. formula supply, so their recall wiped out a large segment of the market.
The Daily Mail in the UK published a report earlier this week with a quote Abbott spokesperson that said a 'thorough investigation' by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Abbott showed that Sturgis plant production "is not the likely source of infection in the reported cases and that there was not an outbreak caused by products from the facility." Nevertheless, the plant has remained closed, with the FDA telling the Daily Mail that they have "been working with Abbott since the Feb. 17 recall on ways to resume production."
On Tuesday, the FDA stated that they would not object "to Abbott Nutrition releasing product to individuals needing urgent, life-sustaining supplies of certain specialty and metabolic formulas on a case-by-case basis that have been on hold at its Sturgis facility. In these circumstances, the benefit of allowing caregivers, in consultation with their healthcare providers, to access these products may outweigh the potential risk of bacterial infection. The FDA is working to ensure health care provider associations and stakeholders understand information about the risks and benefits of pursuing this product."
McPeek said that most of his store's stock comes from their warehouse, which gets their quantities of product from the plants like the one in Michigan. "It's countrywide, and we're seeing (the shortage) in every (Walmart) store," he said.
"We've seen things like this in the past with other categories, but this recall has made it worse," he added. "... Most of the time, it's a supply chain deal, but I think when they had this recall, it absolutely multiplied the difficulties trying to get (the product). We've got one type, Good Start (by Gerber), that we can actually get that in, but some of the others, you just can't get right now."
McPeek said his store gets a lot of questions from customers about the situation, with people wanting answers on when they'll start seeing more stock.
"We're all trying to get those questions answered," he said. "... I think once production starts back up, you'll see a little bit of lag time, but eventually it will get better."
He noted that with some products that have been affected by supply chain problems they'll have a shortage, and suddenly face the opposite problem, an excess supply of the product.
"One minute we have none, the next minute we a have a back room full of stuff," said McPeek. "It's very challenging trying to predict what the supply chain is going to do."
One local organization that actually does have a lot of baby formula on hand is God's Food Pantry. The non-profit food distribution center in Somerset made a Facebook post on Tuesday letting local families know that they had two kinds of formula on hand to share with those who need it — Good Start Soothe and Good Start Gentle.
"If you have a baby under one year old and you can use this, please stop by our front desk (119 S Central Ave, Somerset, Ky.) and ask for some," read the God's Food Pantry post. "You do not need to prove income or address, but we do ask for you to bring the baby's birth certificate so we may verify the baby's name and age. Limit 2 cans per baby while supplies last."
Executive Director Brenda Russell said that the post was shared 244 times and was seen by more than 8,000 people. "So I know that it's something that people are really talking about and thinking about right now," she said.
"We were blessed to have an abundance of those types of items in stock," she added, "and so we were just offering them out to families who could use them. To be honest, I think we only had about six or eight takers."
So God's Food Pantry still has a fair amount of the formula on hand — probably 50 or 60 cans, estimated Russell on Friday afternoon.
"We just wanted to make sure there were no babies going hungry," she said, noting that she later shared a Facebook post what products could be adequate replacements for certain items that may be hard to find in stock as an educational effort for parents. "They can look at it and say, 'Well, if I can't get mine, what's the next closest in another brand?'"
While Russell can't be sure how long the shortages will last, she said that the pantry won't be hoarding the supply they have, even though she has concerns about getting more.
"We will give it out as needed, and for us, whenever we give, usually God replaces it for us," said Russell. "We try not to worry about those things too much because we know that we don't want to sit on it. We want to get it into the hands of people who can use it, and somewhere along the way it will come back around for us."
A local agency that has not fared as well in dealing with formula supply issues is the Lake Cumberland District Health Department (LCDHD). The health department operates WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), a supplemental food program that serves as a safeguard for nutrition for low-income families with children up to age 5. Vouchers for infant formula for babies who aren't being breastfed is supplied through the WIC program.
"The short supply of formula has been a challenge to staff at the health departments but more importantly to parents of infants who are not able to find formula especially those which require specialty formulas," said Laura Woodrum, RN, BSN, Director of Nursing for LCDHD.
The health department is doing what they can to work around the problem. Woodrum said it's "vital" for LCDHD to know what's available in local stores, and families with infants need to help them keep aware of what is available. Nevertheless, she said, it's been "frustrating" for moms to see the shortages and "scary" to those only able to find a limited supply of their formula.
"Staff at the health department are able to change WIC food packages to help accommodate the needs of parents and infants based on what formula is available by their local vendor," she said. "... For pregnant ladies, we are providing education on not only the benefits of breastfeeding but also make them aware of the shortage of formula in hopes they will consider breastfeeding. We also use the opportunity to promote our breastfeeding peer counselor program which is an added benefit of the WIC program.
"Additionally, we encourage moms to talk with the grocery store ask when the next shipment is coming in and what they are receiving," she continued. "For those with specialty formulas, we encourage moms to communicate closely with their pediatrician to determine what is best for (their) baby based on availability."