The nationwide baby formula shortage has Montclair parents flocking to the Montclair Mommies and Daddies Facebook page in search of nourishment for their children. Some are giving away samples they received from the four companies that make most baby formula in the U.S. — Abbott Laboratories, Reckitt Benckiser, Nestlé and Perrigo — after giving birth to their own children.

Others are posting store alerts, when they see shelves stocked, similar to when residents shared news about where to get home coronavirus testing kits before the holidays. But while coronavirus tests will work for anyone no matter the brand, formula is very specific to a given child's nutritional and health needs. Some children with allergies, or with gastrointestinal or metabolic issues, can not easily switch brands.  

That’s the case for Sarah Chamberlin’s 8-year-old daughter, Izzy, who has a rare disorder known as phenylketonuria, and relies on metabolic formula for about 70% of her nutrition. She goes through one can of powdered formula every three days.

“She's restricted to five grams of protein from food per day. Any more than that, and her body can't metabolize the excess of the amino acid phenylalanine, which acts as a neurotoxin in her system,” Chamberlin said, adding that Izzy will be on formula for life.

Izzy typically receives 16 cans of the powdered formula a month from their clinic, and on April 25 only received two cans to get her daughter through May. 

Izzy Chamberlin, 8, gets 70% of her nutrition through a metabolic formula. Amid a formula shortage that has resulted in empty grocery store shelves, her mother, Sarah, worries for her health. (COURTESY SARAH CHAMBERLIN)
Izzy Bradford, 8, gets 70% of her nutrition through a metabolic formula. Amid a formula shortage that has resulted in empty grocery store shelves, her mother, Sarah, worries for her health.

Pandemic-related supply chain issues have caused a formula shortage over the last year, but a recall prompted by concerns of bacterial contamination at an Abbott plant in February and subsequent closure worsened the shortage, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In February, Abbott voluntarily recalled a number of powder formulas, including Similac, Alimentum and EleCare, manufactured in Sturgis, Michigan after four children became sick and two children died. The plant has remained shut down while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigates the complaints. 

“We know the recall has worsened an already existing industry-wide infant formula shortage in the U.S. and we've been seeing and hearing the stress and despair of parents who are facing empty shelves,” Abbott said in a May 13 press release.

Abbott said that its Sturgis plant could be producing within two weeks of the FDA greenlighting a reopening.

But Chamberlin, who manages, for families whose children depend on metabolic formulas, said that while it would take up to eight weeks to get regular formula back on the shelves, the metabolic formulas take longer to manufacture. 

Families with young children who depend on the federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program — known as WIC — and food pantries have been hit hard by the formula shortage as well.

WIC of New Jersey has expanded the types of special formulas for medical needs now covered under the program, which allows pediatricians to substitute brands for Abbott products. 

And food pantries’ formula stocks have dried up. Human Needs Food Pantry of Montclair is completely out of baby formula, Executive Director Mike Bruno said late last week. 

“Like everyone else, we are completely out of baby formula and have put out requests for donations from anywhere possible to assist the young mothers who come to us for assistance,” Bruno said.

He said that when the pantry runs out of specialty, such as during a recent shortage of large-size diapers, it is usually able to do a callout and get them stocked back up.

“The formula issue is very different because it appears you just can't get it,” Bruno said. “Stores, online shopping and even Amazon do not seem to have access to it. At this point, there's nothing more we can do but hope the suppliers increase production dramatically to offset this shortage. I don't know what these families are going to do if this continues.”

The Salvation Army Montclair Citadel typically refers clients to local food banks that handle nutritional needs for families, but officials worry now that their formula source has dried up. Michele Kroeze, the citadel’s business manager, said this particular shortage is a “real issue.” 

“It’s more than just a shortage. It’s more serious. Mothers can’t just keep switching formulas to what’s available,” she said. 

For now, Abbott has shipped formula into the United States from its plant in Ireland, has upped its production of Similac and, at the request of the FDA, has released metabolic formulas that were on hold earlier this month, according to its May 13 statement. 

“We understand the situation is urgent — getting Sturgis up and running will help alleviate this shortage,” the statement said. It would begin producing EleCare, Alimentum and metabolic formulas first, and then Similac and other formulas, it said.

For now, Chamberlin said the specialists have helped her family transition to another brand, and she has been able to stock up about a two-month supply for Izzy.   

“But beyond that it will become a crisis. Without the formula, she will become bedridden. Not having the formula will mean the neurotoxins will build up in her system,” she said.
And for others, she said, it could be a “life or death situation.”