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Baby formula shortage hits Michigan families, especially the poor


Hanan Abusalah spent Wednesday morning driving from her home in Dearborn across the Canadian border in search of baby formula.

Her friend, Halah Slayman, 35, who has been visiting from Hamilton, Ontario, was almost out of the hypoallergenic baby formula she feeds to her 2-month-old baby, who is allergic to proteins in milk and requires the special formula.

But the formula was nowhere to be found locally in Metro Detroit. Abusalah and other community members spent days trying to track down canisters of Nutramigen. They called and visited local supermarkets, as well as chain stores like Walmart and Target. Even Amazon was out of stock.

Finally, they found the formula in stock across the border at a store in Ontario, so she got in her car and headed east for a three-hour trek that kept everyone on edge. Her friend was constantly sending her messages.

"You don't understand how many messages I had from (my friend): 'Please update me. Where are you? Did they give you a hard time? Are you there yet? How many did you find?'" said Abusalah, 35, in a phone interview on Wednesday, just after crossing back into the United States with three bottles of the formula in hand. "The baby's two months old, so you can only imagine what was going through her mind."

Similarly, urgent searches for formula have been playing out across Metro Detroit and the country in recent weeks, the result of a baby formula shortage fueled in part by a February recall by the country's largest formula manufacturer, Abbott Laboratories, for products made at its Michigan plant. The recalled products included powder formula sold under the labels Similac, Alimentum and EleCare labels after four children became ill with rare bacterial infections and two died.

The formula shortage has created an added strain on Detroit-area families at a time when many are already grappling with surging inflation and high gas prices. It is also hurting low-income families who use the Woman, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which late last year switched to Abbott infant formula products.

In February, the Food and Drug Administration shut down an Abbott Laboratories plant in the southwest Michigan town of Sturgis where the recalled products were made. The facility — a critical production point, particularly for specialty formulas — remains closed, even as shortages hit stores across the country. 

The out-of-stock rates for baby formula hit 43% nationally during the first week of May, up from 30% at the beginning of April and compared with rates of less than 4% a year earlier, according to findings from retail analytics firm Datasembly

The FDA said it is continuing to work diligently to ensure the safe resumption of production of infant formula at Abbott Nutrition’s Sturgis facility.

In an effort to address the shortage, President Joe Biden spoke with formula retailers and manufacturers on Thursday. Biden also announced additional steps to help replenish supplies, including cutting red tape for nutritional labels and packaging, cracking down on price gouging, and increasing supply by importing more formula from abroad.

Low-income mothers hit hard

The problem is acute for clients of the WIC program through which low-income and moderate-income pregnant or postpartum women and children under age 5 can purchase certain food items, including baby formula, at a reduced price.

About 85% of Michigan's formula-fed WIC participants are affected by the Abbott recall, said Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The department has listed alternate formula options on the Michigan WIC website, Sutfin said. 

For some products, program participants have to buy specific brands, which are marked with a WIC label.

With baby formula, the state WIC program enters into a rebate contract with a single corporate supplier, meaning only that brand is eligible for the discount. Abbott is the contract supplier for more than 30 states.

Last August, the state of Michigan said it would be switching suppliers at the end of the year, ending its contract with Mead Johnson and entering into a new contract with Abbott Laboratories.

About a month later, an infant in Minnesota was hospitalized with a Cronobacter infection. The baby had consumed formula produced at Abbott's Sturgis plant prior to getting sick. Both the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control were notified on Sept. 20.

At the end of October, a whistleblower alerted the FDA to extensive allegations of poor cleaning measures and attempts to conceal problems at the Sturgis facility. The former Abbott employee detailed the problems in a lengthy document sent directly to several of the agency's top officials.

The formula contract between the Michigan WIC program and Abbott Laboratories went into effect less than two weeks later on Nov. 1. The Illinois-based company entered into new WIC formula supplier contracts with seven states in 2021, more than it had added in any other single-year period over the past decade. 

Supplies vary at area stores

At Azaal Discount Pharmacy in Hamtramck, the struggle to secure supplies of baby formula has snowballed over the last few months. 

"We've been steadily finding out that there's a big shortage with the formula," said the store's pharmacist, Zander Saleh. "We can't get it from the wholesaler most of the time."

It's grown so difficult that they've largely given up on trying to stock the essential item, something that has left Saleh feeling stressed knowing that his customers will have to look elsewhere.

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland, posted a photo on Twitter of a heavily picked over aisle of baby formula at a Target in Grandville. 

On the same day, Holiday Market in Royal Oak was down to its last can of formula, said Ashley Polansky, a Holiday Market store manager. The supply has been low throughout most of the pandemic, but the empty shelves hit suddenly in the last week, she said. The store had received two calls on Thursday from people in search of formula.

"I’ve never had a phone call about it until recently, so apparently no one has it," Polansky said. 

Several independent grocery store managers in Detroit said they have found ways to keep their shelves stocked with the basic types of formula. In some cases, conditions have improved compared with the weeks after Abbott issued the recall, they said.

A store manager at Savon Foods supermarket in Detroit said the store started experiencing some supply issues late last year, almost immediately after the Michigan Woman, Infants and Children (WIC) program switched to a new infant formula supplier. The recall in February also created complications, but at this point, the store has bolstered its inventory.

At Prince Valley Market in southwest Detroit, keeping baby formula on the shelves has become a top priority, according to store manager Ana Lupercio. Getting the recall email in February was a scary moment, she said.

"We had most of them," said Lupercio, referring to the recalled formulas. She said she was hit hard by the realization that babies in their community were going to be affected. Her own newborn nephew became ill while drinking the Similac formula, she said.

"We thought maybe he just needed to get used to it, but no," said Lupercio, explaining that he became moody and experienced stomach problems after drinking the Similac formula. 

In the immediate aftermath of the recall, the store had some issues getting enough formula. Knowing many of their customers wouldn't have other places to go, the staff funneled significant energy into keeping track of the recall developments and ensuring the store had enough formula on its shelves. 

Lupercio said they were able to work with their supplier to get a new formula in stock and have since been able to maintain a steady supply.

Since switching to the new brand, her nephew's problems have disappeared. 

"He's a whole different baby now," Lupercio said.

Supermarkets in the Upper Peninsula reported similar experiences with formula supplies. At Jim's Jubilee Foods in Ishpeming, supplies of Abbott's Similac formula have been hard to come by since the February recall.

It's been two weeks since the store received any shipments of Similac, but it hasn't had any issues stocking the Enfamil brand, according to assistant store manager Elijah Pelkie. An Iron Mountain branch of the Super One Foods supermarket chain said the only formula brands it doesn't have are the ones that were part of the recall. 

Donations dip at local aid groups

Local food assistance organizations, however, have noticed a decrease in formula donations. At the Salvation Army in Ishpeming, the donations it typically gets from local hospitals and agencies have suddenly dried up in the last three months.

"We used to get overflows from the hospitals and stuff …, and we’re not getting those anymore," said Liz Nevala, the local case manager at the nonprofit.

Local social service agencies in Detroit have started taking steps to bolster their supply of formula as well. But their stocks are dwindling quickly and donations are not coming in fast enough, sparking concerns about the disproportionate impact the shortage will have on the city's most economically vulnerable residents.

"Some folks, in the suburbs especially, they're having to jump around. It's like, which Target are they going to go to to get the formula," said Shaun Lowery, the director of operations at Crossroads of Michigan, an outreach agency in Detroit. "Our clients don't have that luxury."

"The shortage is affecting the poor even more so than in the general population."

The shortage comes at a critical time for organizations like Crossroads, which has seen a sharp uptick in the number of parents coming in for assistance. In January, Lowery said 150 parents participated in the organization's parenting program, which provides assistance with items like diapers and baby formula. By March, there were 231 parents, representing 240 children.

"The numbers of parents coming have increased, while our ability to provide formula has decreased," Lowery said. "Our clients have a lot of different challenges, and we have clients now that on top of all those challenges their ability to feed their babies is being compounded by the shortage. It's just heartbreaking."

This week, the agency has been focused on trying to track down formula and getting the word out about the shortage to their donors. They're calling big vendors and local stores alike to find formula that can be purchased or donated.

Other organizations across Metro Detroit are also starting to feel the impact of the shortage. The early childhood services program at Wayne Metro Community Action Agency has been trying to source formula for the babies who attend their programs.

"We are starting to run into the same thing that's happening with everyone else," said Jessica Moore, an executive director at the agency. 

The organization has enough formula on hand to get through the next few weeks, according to Moore, but after that, it will be in a tough position. 

"When you're talking about food and an infant and that's all they can have, I don't know what we're going to do," she said. "We're going to have to really start to have some conversations around what that's going to look like with pediatricians and things of that nature."

Moore expressed feelings of concern and uncertainty about other ways the supply chain strain could affect the agency down the road.

"I think we're experiencing more uncertainty now than probably ever before," she said. "I don't know if there was ever a time where I was really worried about children having formula or kids having diapers and kind of just those basic needs."

kruble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @RubleKB