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As baby formula manufacturers rush to ramp up production to mitigate a nationwide shortage of the product, one Albuquerque pediatrician says cow milk can be used as a stopgap measure, but only for a brief period of time.
Although cow’s milk is not recommended for newborn babies, “for infants who are older than 6 months, it’s OK in the short term using whole milk,” said Dr. Matthew Kadish, an assistant professor in the University of New Mexico’s Department of Pediatrics.
And by short term, he said, “it’s hard to give an exact number, but I think it would be fine for a few days, or a week, but not a whole lot longer.” That’s because too much cow’s milk can interfere with a baby’s ability to absorb iron and lead to an iron deficiency, Kadish said.
Periodic shortages of baby formula have been occurring over the last two years, a result of pandemic-related supply chain disruptions. These were made worse starting in February with “an outbreak of a couple of rare bacterial infections” that have been linked to powdered formula products from the Abbott Nutrition manufacturing facility in Michigan. That factory has temporarily shut down production, Kadish said.
The bacterial infections may have contributed to two infant deaths, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Abbott is one of just four companies that produce about 90% of U.S. formula, said the FDA, and Abbott’s formula products account for nearly half that market.
Baby formulas produced at the Abbott facility in Michigan include those under the brand names of Similac, Similac PM 60/40 products, Alimentum and EleCare.
During the first week of May, 43% of retail outlets in the U.S. reported a shortage of baby formula supplies, according to Datasembly, a company that tracks retail data.
The shortage also triggered consumer stockpiling of baby formula made by other companies, and some of those companies, like Gerber and Perrigo Nutritionals, have ramped up production.
Kadish said it’s important, even during times of shortages, to mix baby formula according to the manufacturer’s recommendations and not try to dilute them so they last longer.
“These formulas are very specifically manufactured to have the right amount of nutrients, and they can cause really severe and significant nutritional imbalances that can lead to seizures and other disorders if they’re not mixed appropriately,” he said.
Even if Abbott gets up and running today, it could be six to eight weeks before a sufficient amount of their product makes it onto store shelves, Kadish said.
In an attempt to mitigate the shortage, Abbott, which has a production plant in Columbus, Ohio, said it was converting other liquid manufacturing lines into making liquid Similac, and has brought in millions of cans of formula from its production facility in Ireland.
In addition, emergency measures taken by the Biden administration and the Food and Drug Administration may get formula into the hands of mothers a bit sooner.
On Monday, the FDA said it was streamlining its review process to make it easier for foreign manufacturers to more quickly begin shipping baby formula to the U.S.
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to speed up manufacturing of infant formula; and in a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, Biden directed the agencies to work with the Pentagon to identify overseas manufacturers of formula that meet U.S. standards so that chartered Defense Department flights can swiftly fly the items to the U.S.