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There is still a baby formula shortage

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The baby formula shortage in the U.S. drags on with stores struggling to keep formula in stock, even with some efforts to replenish supply. Besides flying in formula from other countries, President Biden signed the Formula Act into law on Friday, a bipartisan bill that he says will help increase access to baby formula. So when can caregivers expect some relief? Joining us now is Helena Bottemiller Evich. She's an investigative reporter and author of Food Fix, a newsletter about food policy. Helena, welcome.

HELENA BOTTEMILLER EVICH: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: We talked to you back in May about the baby food shortage. You called it a slow-moving train wreck. And after that conversation, I started seeing that, you know, it seemed like the government was stepping in and all this stuff was happening. And I thought, well, maybe it's sorted out. But it seems like that is not the case.

BOTTEMILLER EVICH: Yeah. This has really dropped out of the news. I mean, you're right that the Biden administration has taken a lot of steps. They are flying in formula from Europe and Australia, and they have really brought in a lot of volume. It's actually about 60 million bottles worth - so about eight-ounce bottles. And that's a lot, but it's just not enough to get us out of this shortage.

RASCOE: One of the reasons behind the shortage was the shutdown of the Abbott Laboratories plant based in Michigan after it had this bacteria outbreak in February. And this is the plant that makes a lot of Similac and other formula brands. I thought it restarted operations at the beginning of this month. Why does it still seem to be, like, slow to get everything replenished?

BOTTEMILLER EVICH: That plant did reopen at the beginning of July, and it is now fully operational as far as we know. But it's still going to take time. And the thing to know is that we're actually selling more infant formula today by volume. So volumes are up. And if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. If you're a parent or caregiver and you see that these shelves are empty, if you find the formula that your kiddo needs, you're going to buy more. So while that is happening, this shortage is going to continue as long as that's the case. And I think parents are going to keep buying more as long as they see shelves that are largely empty. And the rates - the in-stock retail rates are actually worse now than they were a month ago. And, you know, it's stressful if that's what you're looking for.

RASCOE: And so, I mean, you have all of these parents and caregivers who are struggling to feed their babies, what are you hearing from them? Like, I remember when we talked before, there were a lot of specialty formulas that were very hard to find. Is that still the case?

BOTTEMILLER EVICH: It has gotten somewhat better. I mean, Abbott has released a lot of these specialty formulas directly to families, and that has definitely helped. A lot of other manufacturers have stepped in to try to ramp up production. So that has eased somewhat, but the stress is still very much there. And a lot of parents that need - like, if your kid has a dairy sensitivity or they have any sort of special needs or need, like, a sensitive formula, those folks are still having a really hard time finding what they need. In some cases, parents are driving, like, hundreds of miles to find, like, a specific type of formula. So these are not normal times that we're living in right now.

RASCOE: Can you tell me - I know in the past, low-income families, they've had some struggles to get formula. Is that still the case?

BOTTEMILLER EVICH: Yeah. It's important to keep in mind that WIC, which is a program that serves primarily, you know, infants, pregnant women and young children, that actually serves about half of all infants in the U.S. And so those families right now are only able to use their benefits in-store, which means that when a store is mostly out of stock, that's a more stressful experience, you know, than if you were shopping online and maybe get to shop around and have it shipped to your house. So USDA is looking at making WIC benefits available online - or be able to use online, similar to SNAP, a program that many people still know as food stamps. But that is not currently in effect yet. So there is definitely a disproportionate impact on low-income families when it comes to in-store stocking.

RASCOE: So what needs to happen to fix this crisis? Is there any kind of light at the end of the tunnel for parents out there who are struggling?

BOTTEMILLER EVICH: It's hard to look forward. It's hard to, you know, predict exactly when this will get better. A lot of - more manufacturers are jumping in here. They're trying to take market share away from these bigger players. I do think we'll end up with a more dynamic, competitive market if some of these flexibilities are allowed to stay. Lawmakers are really thinking about this and what might be done. And I don't think we know yet how seriously they're going to push for reforms to try to make this system more resilient.

RASCOE: That's Helena Bottemiller Evich, investigative reporter and author of Food Fix, a newsletter about food policy. Thank you so much for being with us.

BOTTEMILLER EVICH: Thanks for having me. Any time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKINSHAPE'S "MANDALA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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