Infant Formula Shortages Persist, and Policy Lessons Abound
Four months into the crisis, the biggest news might be what hasn’t happened.
It’s been two months since I first wrote about the U.S. infant formula mess, and a lot has happened in the meantime. The Biden administration initiated “Operation Fly Formula” to airlift foreign formula, invoked the Defense Production Act to spur more production here, and tried to relax various FDA rules to encourage foreign producers to enter the previously closed U.S. market. Numerous pieces of congressional legislation have been proposed, with Biden signing one modest one (on administration of federal food assistance) into law. And Abbott Laboratories’ Michigan plant—the one that likely turned a modest formula shortage into a serious crisis—reopened, only to close again because of flooding, and then finally reopen again earlier this month.
Yet the biggest recent formula news may very well be what hasn’t happened in the four-plus months since the shortages really cranked up: a significant improvement in domestic supplies. The Wall Street Journal has the latest:
Availability of powdered formula products in U.S. stores earlier this month dropped to the lowest level so far this year, with about 30% of products out of stock for the week ended July 3, according to the market-research firm IRI. While availability improved slightly last week, out-of-stock levels remain higher than in recent months, and shortages remain acute in states including Alaska, Utah and Wyoming, IRI data showed.
At the same time, consumers are finding fewer choices of brands, sizes or formats of formula on grocery-store shelves as the variety of available products shrinks. U.S. supermarkets over the four weeks ended June 26 sold an average of 11 different formula products per store weekly, according to IRI, compared with a weekly average of 24 from 2018 to 2021.
Keith Milligan, controller of Piggly Wiggly stores in Georgia and Alabama, said his stores are carrying five of the 30 formula products they typically sell, compared with about 10 in late spring. Store shelves aren’t empty, but have many gaps, Mr. Milligan said, and customers are purchasing what is available.
“It has not improved at all,” Mr. Milligan said of Piggly Wiggly’s formula supply.
Major online retailers—as cataloged by the unfortunately-still-useful “Baby Formula Stock Tracker” website—also show many products still out of stock. Bloomberg documents where brick-and-mortar shortages have been the worst:
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