‘Nothing at all on the shelf’: Parents seek imported baby formula amid shortage

ORLANDO, Fla. — Josh Anderson left his Orlando-area home Friday morning expecting to make a quick trip to pick up baby formula for his 6-week-old from a nearby store.

Until now, he said obtaining a soy-based formula that his daughter’s digestive issues mandated wasn’t a huge chore, even with the supply limitations. If his usual shopping location was out, another store a mile or two further down the road would have some in stock.

After using three-quarters of a tank of gas and searching without luck, he gave in and called his pediatrician.

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“Nothing, nothing at all on the shelf,” he said. “I ended up just going over there. We used her last two cans.”

Though the government said the supply of formula was stabilizing Friday, formula products, particularly specialty mixtures required by babies with allergies or medical issues, were harder to find than before. Some parents reported driving hours to obtain the brands they needed. Others are having boxes mailed in from out of state.

The shortage started when FDA inspectors began investigating the Abbott Nutrition plant in Michigan in February, after several babies contracted a bacterial infection and died. Abbott issued a voluntary recall of its products, which are some of the biggest brands in the formula industry.

Read: Local parents feel impact of nationwide baby formula shortage

The Biden administration is working with other manufacturers to boost their production by 50%. Officials also say using the Defense Production Act is “on the table,” but a decision isn’t imminent.

One option, analysts point out, is to import baby formula from allies in Mexico, Canada and Europe. Currently, just 2% of formula products used by Americans are imported, compared to 98% produced in the United States.

However, doing so would require more than a phone call.

Read: Baby formula shortage fueling spike in milk bank interest

“We have huge tariffs on baby formula imports,” Gabriella Beaumont-Smith, a policy analyst with the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank, said. “That’s just the tax side. If you then go into the actual regulatory side, it gets even more complicated.”

Beaumont-Smith said the tariffs reach as high as 17.5%, more than 10 times above the average tariff imposed by the government. She said the high restrictions stemmed from a drive to protect U.S. dairy farmers, particularly from competition in Canada.

Other instances have led to products being seized at ports because the package labels didn’t follow U.S. standards, she explained.

Americans can import formula mixtures for personal use, despite warnings from pediatricians concerned about safety. The FDA regulates commercial sales.

Read: Baby formula shortage: How should parents feed infants; is homemade formula an option?

“It’s a prime example of how protectionism doesn’t promote resiliency for Americans,” Beaumont-Smith said. “Now, American families are going to the store and they can’t get formula for their babies.”

Beaumont-Smith’s analysis isn’t falling on deaf ears. Biden administration officials said the FDA would make an announcement in the coming days about importing formula, though details of the announcement weren’t included.

In the long term, the analyst said it would serve America and its allies well to treat formula like the pharmaceutical industry, where each country understands the others’ minimum standards.

That would give the United States a backup plan, in case a future failure again rips apart the fragile supply chain.

“It’s about just presenting Americans with as many options as they want,” she said. “That’s what free trade is really about.”

Abbott leaders have said they will restart their plant upon FDA approval, with products hitting store shelves approximately two months after.

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Matt Reeser, WFTV.com

Matt Reeser joined WFTV in 1998 as a news photographer and has worked for television stations in Kentucky and West Virginia.