It’s a nightmare no parent ever wants to endure.
Families all over the country are in a race against the clock to find a critical source of food they desperately need to keep their children fed — baby formula.
For months, stores nationwide have struggled to stock enough baby formula. Manufacturers say they’re producing at full capacity and are making more formula than ever before, but it’s still not enough to meet current demand.
Then came last week’s gut punch that made matters worse and left parents like Sarah Ellis reeling.
The US Food and Drug Administration last Thursday recalled three brands of powdered baby formulas due to potential bacterial infections, including Salmonella. The agency advised parents not to buy or use certain batches of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare powdered infant formulas. All three brands are made by Abbott Nutrition.
Both Alimentum and EleCare are specialized formulas. Alimentum is hypoallergenic and easier to digest for infants with a lactose sensitivity or an allergy to cow’s milk protein. EleCare, also a hypoallergenic formula without milk or lactose-based ingredients, is given to infants and older children with severe food allergies, gastrointestinal disorders and other conditions that may require oral or tube feeding.
Before the recall, Ellis was already struggling to find enough supply of EleCare for her almost four-year-old daughter, Maisie. Now, the situation is “literally a life or death thing,” she said.
Maisie has a condition called short bowel syndrome, which prevents her from absorbing enough nutrients from food. Ellis said Maisie gets half of her nutrients through intravenous treatment and half through EleCare.
The day of the recall, Ellis had four or five cases of Elecare formula at home. She checked the cans and saw they were affected by the recall. Suddenly the entire stock of her daughter’s vital food source was wiped out.
On Saturday, Ellis tried to give her daughter a different formula, with devastating results. “Maisie threw up all day long,” she said.
Ellis, who lives in Alexandria, Va., drove to multiple stores before finding a single case of the EleCare formula. One case lasts Maisie about two weeks.
Finding standard formula has become difficult for parents, many of whom described the extraordinary lengths they’ve gone to in order to score even a single can or bottle. Specialized formula is even harder to locate amid the widespread shortage. Parents are driving to neighboring states to try their luck, and many are pleading for help on social media, imploring strangers to share or even barter any extra supply they may have.
But specialized formula is even harder to locate amid the widespread shortage. Parents are driving to neighboring states to try their luck, and many are pleading for help on social media, imploring strangers to share or even barter any extra supply they may have.
Ellis was fortunate to find that help just a few steps away. Her next door neighbor, Elizabeth Coco, is able to share some of her EleCare supply — for now.
A shared struggle
The two moms are bonded by their love and nurturing of their medically fragile children. In many ways, Coco’s son Thomas, who goes by T, is a typical soon to be five-year-old.
“He has long blond curly hair and he’s always smiling and laughing,” said Coco. Like Maisie, T also desperately needs Elecare Jr, a version of the formula for older children. It’s his primary source of nutrition and he is fed overnight through a G-tube, a surgically implanted device that provides nutrition directly into the stomach for supplemental feeding.
Coco explained that her son suffers with four rare diseases, 23 known food allergies and a long list of unknown triggers that can cause a deadly reaction. “He has gone into shock three times in my arms,” she said, making him extremely fearful of food.
The list of safe foods T can eat is very limited, and Elecare is the only formula he can consume safely.
“He has failed every other amino acid and hypoallergenic formula they can swap him to,” Coco wrote in a desperate Facebook post on Feb. 19, two days after the FDA recall.
All 54 cans of the formula she had for T were recalled, leaving her with no food for her son and no choice but to put him to bed without the nutrition he needed. “I was asking help from anybody,” Coco said.
Grocery stores nearby were out of stock. Medical supply shops had no inventory and she couldn’t get any more emergency supply from her doctor’s office.
“I shared that post and one mom told another, who told a friend who told another mom,” she said. She has since received some supply from parents in Canada, Ohio and other places around the country. “I have enough to feed him for two months as long as he stays healthy,” Coco said. And she’s sharing some of it with Ellis for Maisie.
The emotional toll of the last few days has been extreme. “This is a bad situation. But when you have kids like T, you never panic. You learn to move forward in a logical way,” she said.
Dr. Steve Abrams, a neonatologist and former chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on nutrition, said the ongoing shortage of all kinds of formula, coupled with the recent recall of Abbott’s specialized brands, has created a very difficult situation for parents whose children require it as essential food.
“Pediatricians are getting calls non stop,” Abrams said. “We don’t know how long the shortage will last, but I don’t anticipate that it will be resolved quickly.”
A spokesperson for Abbott said in an email to CNN Business that the company is leveraging its global manufacturing and supply network to meet demand and “increasing production at an FDA approved facility in Europe and air freighting product in.”
The spokesperson noted that the recall only impacts batches of formulas produced and distributed in its Sturgis, Mich. facility, and said that no other products that Abbot distributes had so far tested positive for Salmonella or other pathogens.
“Our other US plants are running at maximum capacity and we’re converting some production of other liquid products to Similac,” she said, adding that the company “values the trust parents place in us for high quality and safe infant nutrition and will do whatever it takes to resolve this situation. We regret this situation and the impact it will have on parents, caregivers, patients and healthcare professionals.”
Learning to cope
First-time mom Tran Trivedi was relieved when she finally found a formula, Alimentum, that suited her four-month-old son, Armin.
“He could drink it without the gasiness and pain he would get from other formulas,” she said.
Like plenty of other parents, she’s spent hours every day trying to track down more supply. “I placed an order at one store on February 1st and it’s still on backorder with no time frame on when it will ship,” she said.
The recall also wiped out her stock, and Trivedi currently has six bottles of formula she was able to find in a store and from friends. It’s enough for about two weeks of feeding.
“It’s so stressful. I shouldn’t be struggling so much to find formula for my baby. Not everyone can breastfeed their baby. I pump and I’m not making enough for him,” said Trivedi, breaking down in tears.
“It’s not easy at all driving around everywhere with your newborn who has to eat and sleep and grow,” she said. “It shouldn’t be this way.”