A nationwide shortage of infant formula that has stressed families for much of 2022 is easing in Wisconsin, but questions about infant formula access still arise for some caregivers.
Grocery store shelves still aren’t as full as they were before the shortage began in February, said Camen Hofer, president of the Women’s, Infants, and Children’s Association of Wisconsin and director of the Department of Health’s WIC program. Wood County Health.
“But Similac is on the shelves, and families have been able to find more of the formula they’re looking for,” Hofer said.
The formula shortage was the result of pandemic-related supply chain issues and two closures of an Abbott Nutrition factory in Sturgis, Michigan – first amid an investigation into reports of bacterial infections that caused a recall and later due to flooding.
Abbott restarted production of Similac at the Sturgis plant in late August, bringing the popular brand back to market. Another recall on Oct. 14 affected certain 2-ounce ready-to-serve products due to a leak issue in less than 1% of recalled bottles. But it was not planned to crimp the overall supply in the United States
Recent photos posted to the Milwaukee Formula Parents Facebook group, which formed to help local parents deal with the shortage, show fuller shelves. But some parents are still struggling to find specialized formulas.
At the end of August, officials from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service predicted that supply problems would persist through the end of 2022 “due to a change in varieties and sizes. traditionally available on the market”.
As the stock improves, here’s what parents and caregivers — especially those enrolled in the WIC program — need to know about access to formula.
How long will the alternative formulas be available?
Before the shortage, WIC allowed families to spend their benefits on just five of Abbott’s Similac formulas, unless they requested a medical formula.
State-run, federally-funded WIC programs contract with a single company in each state to reduce costs. Formula companies offer states deep discounts for the privilege of exclusively supplying formula to WIC programs. Abbott contracts with about two-thirds of the states, including Wisconsin.
But the Wisconsin Department of Health Services opened up more options early in the shortage, including different brands and container sizes, with Abbott covering the cost of substitutes.
Alternative brands will remain available until at least December 31, 2022, the third time that date has been pushed back.
Other sizes and shapes of Abbott’s Similac products, including Total Comfort, will continue to be available through Feb. 28, 2023, the state health department said.
Similac products are back. But are they safe to use?
The state health department notes on its list of substitutions that WIC participants should switch back to Similac products if available because they are “safe and supply is increasing.”
“We are advising families that while Abbott products are on the shelves, they are safe to purchase,” DHS spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt said.
But some parents remain nervous about returning to Abbott after the recall.
Camila Martin, pediatric clinical nutritionist at UW Health Kids, said parents should know Abbott’s recall was voluntary, not mandatory. Abbott did not reopen its Sturgis plant until it met strict cleaning procedures and requirements, she noted.
“There are a lot of eyes on them at the moment which helps from a safety perspective – we know they are going to be very careful, even more so than before,” Martin said.
Although each caregiver knows their baby best, Martin said, “for most infants, it’s okay to switch from one (formula) to another as soon as they’ve exhausted that old reserve. .”
Caregivers can make the transition easier by preparing separate half bottles of each formula according to directions and mixing them together, Martin added.
Will international formulas remain on the market?
Although Wisconsin’s WIC program will stop offering international brands like Kendamil and Bubs after 2022, these products may remain available in stores even after the shortage ends.
The FDA announced in September a long-term path for international manufacturers to stay in the market.
Families need to weigh several variables when considering sticking with an international formula, Martin said, especially if there are questions about shipping the formula, the language used or the mixing of instructions.
Families should pay close attention to mixing instructions, which are often in milliliters, not ounces. International scoops can also come in different sizes, Hofer noted. The FDA has a conversion chart to help prepare international formulas.
“If I’m working with a family, I would always recommend that they upgrade to a US-based equivalent that they can get at a store around here,” Martin said.
Caregivers should speak to a pediatrician if they have further questions about international formulas — including their iron content, Martin and Hofer said.
What water should I use to prepare the formulas?
Some Wisconsin parents have reported a shortage of nursery or “baby” water products, some of which contain added fluoride.
“If a family has an immunocompromised child, distilled water can be the equivalent of water from the nursery,” Martin said. “There are actually no regulations on what nursery water is.”
Municipal water is generally considered safe for infants, but parents can consult their doctor for specifics on water safety in their area.
The World Health Organization recommends boiling water to kill bacteria — and not letting it sit for more than half an hour — before mixing it into formula while it’s still hot. Many families may not be aware of this best practice, Hofer said.
But boiling doesn’t get rid of the lead, if it’s a water supply problem.
Those worried about bacteria or lead in their water could buy distilled water or find another safe source, Martin said. She and Hofer recommend that families who rely on well water test it regularly and check with their local health department.
Can I use WIC to purchase plans online?
Not yet in Wisconsin, though the USDA is working on online shopping, testing it in seven states. The lack of online ordering has limited options for WIC families in Wisconsin who have struggled to find certain formulas in physical stores.
“It’s going to be a while before people can actually use their cards online, which is unfortunate because it’s something that should happen sooner rather than later,” Hofer said.
Congress could reshape the WIC as it considers proposals to reauthorize infant nutrition programs, but its timeline for enacting such legislation is unclear.
Proposal would require states to allow at least three businesses to accept WIC benefits online by 2025. Other proposals would allow remote enrollment appointments and expand eligibility by 2026 to cover children until they reach the age of 6 or kindergarten.
Where can I get information on infant formula?
Families should speak with their pediatrician or the local WIC office. Find contact information for each WIC office here.
The state health department has information here for WIC families, including the current list of surrogates.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also has tips, including this information on imported formulas and this latest recall page.
Check out our previous questions and answers about infant formula here. It includes a list of breastfeeding support services.
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (wisconsinwatch.org) works with Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news outlets, and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, displayed or broadcast by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.