Baby formula shortage: How the Carolinas are responding

Shelves that should be holding containers of baby formula have become even more bare because of ongoing supply disruptions combined with a recent safety recall. While manufacturers have been saying they’re at full production capacity, there is still not enough formula to meet demand.

CNN reported that around this time last year, the out-of-stock rate for baby formula was between 2% and 8%. But from Nov. 2021 to the beginning of April 2022, it jumped to 31%. At the end of April, it skyrocketed to 40%.

The problems began last year as the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in labor, transportation and raw materials — economy-wide issues that didn’t spare the formula industry. Inventory was further squeezed by parents stockpiling during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Then 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.

>> Scroll for information on where you can get baby formula in your area.

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.

How are agencies in the Carolinas responding to the crisis?

Channel 9 has reached out to several agencies across the Carolinas to ask how they are handling the formula shortage. Their answers are below.

NORTH CAROLINA STATE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES

The NCDHHS said it is working with local, state, and federal partners to monitor formula supply and to keep local WIC agencies and partners updated. (WIC is a supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children that provides healthy food and health care support for low-income families.)

It is also sharing information with families and consumers through news outlets and social media.

>> You can find updated information by clicking here.

NC WIC is placing a high volume of orders of formula that local WIC agencies have requested on behalf of families and has shifted extra staff to meet the needs. The volume of orders placed by NC WIC has increased 525% when comparing the past month to Jan. 2022, according to NCDHHS.

MECKLENBURG COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH

A county spokesperson told Channel 9 they are working with the State WIC office to help people struggling to find formula. The county said its local WIC locations have been dealing with formula shortages for more than a year, but have been able to help families in the following ways:

  • A Vendor Coordinator calls more than 150 stores in Mecklenburg County they do business with to find formulas for WIC participants.
  • For certain powder formulas, the county can change them to Ready-To-Feed (RTF) if the RTF is available at the store (with the permission of the infant’s Primary Care Provider).
  • For some unique formulas, Mecklenburg County can put in a written request to have it delivered to a WIC site (with the permission of the State office and the Primary Care Provider).
  • The county also works closely with Primary Care Providers to find a different formula comparable to what they may be receiving but is not currently readily available in stores.

Families can contact Meck County in several different ways: Via an appointment line at 704-336-6500, you can reach a WIC senior administration assistant at 980-314-9410, visit the MeckHealth website, or make online self-referrals for new applicants by using the online referral form to start the certification process.

SOUTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENTAL CONTROL

Residents who participant in WIC or maternal health programs have been calling DHEC in all parts of South Carolina because they can’t formula, the agency said. DHEC’s Maternal and Child Health Services helps families with Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs (CYSHCN) who have special formula and/or nutritional needs.

“Staff continue to work with providers to resolve any concerns surrounding the shortage of special formula supply and to identify the appropriate alternative(s),” DHEC said. “We encourage families to consult with their provider about the appropriate alternative prior to making a formula change.”

DHEC offered the following advice for those who cannot find formula:

“If WIC participants are unable to purchase formula at their local grocery store, they are recommended to try another WIC- approved store or WIC-approved pharmacy. If the brand of formula the family uses is unavailable, then they should contact the infant’s medical provider for alternative recommendations. WIC staff is also contacting stores to check the availability of other forms of formulas (powder, concentrate, or ready-to-feed). If unsuccessful, the WIC office will check to see if the formula can be ordered or if our WIC-approved pharmacies can order the formula. While our WIC offices can order formulas, if available, our clinics do not store any formulas.

“Additionally, caregivers of infants should never try to increase formula by diluting it. This can negatively impact the current health and/or long-term growth of a baby. Also, the caregiver should not make homemade infant formula. Infant formula is the sole source of nutrition for infants and is strictly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Formulas made at home may lack nutrients vital to growth or proper water amounts needed to avoid dehydration.

“Lastly, caregivers should not hoard formulas during this time. Manufacturers are working to increase supply to meet the current demands.”

NOVANT HEALTH

Channel 9 reporter Genevieve Curtis spoke with Novant Health Pediatrician Dr. Maureen Choi. They spoke about Novant’s efforts to help families find formula or alternative solutions. In some cases, parents are starting older babies on whole milk a bit sooner.

Dr. Choi said that in most cases, it’s OK to switch formula brands.

“If the baby is not on a particular formula for a medical need, they can absolutely switch brands. Switch to a generic,” Choi said.

Pediatricians caution families against dangerous alternatives, such as watering down the formula.

“That can throw off the sodium balance in babies’ bodies and potentially cause brain swelling, which can be really dangerous,” Choi said.

PIEDMONT MEDICAL CENTER

“At Piedmont Medical Center, we provide Moms who do not plan to exclusively breastfeed with formula during their stay in the hospital and we currently have adequate supply,” a spokesperson told Channel 9. “We encourage Moms who have questions about formula availability to discuss further with their pediatrician. We can also connect them with appropriate resources based on their needs.”

GASTON COUNTY

“We are seeing an impact in Gaston County, mostly for specialized infant formulas for diagnosed medical conditions,” Gaston County officials said.

The county said it is using a NCDHHS fact sheet, which contains guidance to help families.

Organizations giving out formula in our area

This section is continuously updated as Channel 9 learns who is providing formula. Last updated: May 24, 6 a.m.

A Charlotte woman started a Twitter account to help families looking for baby formula in stores around Charlotte amid the shortage.

“It struck me when I thought back when my children were babies -- and if that happened to me, I just know how horrible it would have been,” Suzanne Young said.

Young is hoping people will send her photos of stocks at stores in the Charlotte area so she can retweet them and save families a trip. She uses the Twitter account @BabyFormulaCLT to share the photos.

The Associated Press and the Cox Media Group National Content Desk contributed to this report.

(WATCH BELOW: Doctors: Don’t make baby formula at home)