As It Happens

This mother doesn't know how she'll feed her baby as formula shortage rages on

Darice Browning is down to four cans of the specialty baby formula she needs for her 10-month-old daughter.

'I just feel like a failure,' says Darice Browning, whose daughter Octavia needs a specific brand of formula

Darice Browning, pictured on the left with her husband Lane Browning and their two children, says she can't find the baby formula she needs for 10-month-old Octavia, right. (Submitted by Darice Browning)

Story Transcript

When Darice Browning first started running out of baby formula, her husband came home to find her crumpled on the floor in tears.

The California woman had tried everything to stock up on the hypoallergenic formula she needs for her 10-month-old daughter Octavia, who has a rare genetic disorder that causes food allergies and severe gastrointestinal problems.

"He came home and he said, 'What's wrong?' And I just feel like a failure because I can't feed my children and provide the necessities for them," Browning told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann, as a baby cried out in the background. "It breaks my heart."

Browning is not alone. Parents across the U.S. who rely on formula are finding themselves in a desperate situation amid a nationwide shortage, the effects of which are trickling into Canada as well. 

About 40 per cent of infant formula that's normally available is out of stock in more than 11,000 stores in the U.S., according to online retail analyst Datasembly.

Why is there a shortage?

A perfect storm of pandemic supply chain issues, panic buying, and a massive recall have left stores, hospitals and doctors' offices scrambling to restock their baby formula.

Hypoallergenic formulas — like what Octavia needs — are the hardest hit of all.

The issue began last year when COVID-19 led to disruptions in labour, transportation and raw materials that affected a wide range of industries, baby formula included.

The problem was exacerbated in February, when health-care company Abbott Nutrition recalled several major hypoallergenic brands of formula and shut down its Sturgis, Mich., factory. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) linked the brands to a spate of bacterial infections in infants. 

Abbott is one of only a handful of companies that produce the vast majority of the U.S. formula supply, so their recall wiped out a large segment of the market, and had a cascading effect as people looked to other brands.

The shortage is affecting Canadian consumers too, though to a lesser extent. Michelle Pensa Branco, co-founder of the non-profit SafelyFed Canada, attributed the difference to a higher prevalence of breastfeeding in Canada, as well the fact that a U.S. federal program for low-income parents buys formula in bulk. 

Watch: How the formula shortage is hitting Canadian families:

Baby formula shortage in the U.S. affects Canadian parents

8 days ago
Duration 2:02
A baby formula shortage in the U.S. is starting to have an effect on Canadian stores and parents, especially those looking for speciality formulas.

But on both sides of the border, parents are taking desperate measures to find the formula they need. 

Jennifer Kersey, 36 of Cheshire, Conn., told The Associated Press she was down to her last can of formula for her seven-month old son, Blake Kersey Jr., before someone saw her post on a Facebook group and came by with a few sample cans.

"At first I was starting to panic," she said. "But, I'm a believer in the Lord, so I said, 'God, I know you're going to provide for me and I just started reaching out to people, 'Hey do you have this formula?'"

Browning, who lives on a military base in Oceanside, Calif., is also trading stories and tips in a Facebook support group for military parents whose children have disabilities.

"We're calling manufacturers. We're calling medical suppliers. We're calling stores in different states. And some people have even outsourced to different countries," she said.

"For some of us that have children with complex disabilities, it's not as easy as going to the store [and picking a different brand]."

When will it end?

Health regulators in the U.S. have announced several steps designed to boost supply, including allowing faster importation of certain foreign brands.

U.S. President Joe Biden promised to speak to manufacturers and retailers about the problem, and the White House has promised "additional measures" will be taken.

The FDA is working with Abbott to try and fix the violations that triggered the shutdown of its Michigan plant. The Chicago-based company said this week that, pending approval, it could restart manufacturing at its plant within two weeks.

After that it would take another six to eight weeks before new products hit store shelves.

Darice Brown's babies, 10-month-old Octavia and 21-month-old Tokyo, are both reliant on hypoallergenic infant formula. (Submitted by Darice Brown)

Browning doesn't know how she's going to make it that long. As of Thursday, she was down to four cans of formula for Octavia. She thinks she can make it last another two and a half weeks.

Her other daughter, 21-month-old Tokyo, is also reliant on formula due to health problems that make it hard for her to digest solid foods.  But so far, Browning says she's been able to find Tokyo's brand.

Once she runs out of formula, she says she'll try relactating. But that's easier said than done. Both her babies are allergic to common dairy proteins, which makes it hard for Browning to breastfeed and stay healthy. 

Nevertheless, she's willing to try again. She has no other choice. 

"I will do my best … to stay on a strict diet for my girls so that they can eat, so that we don't have to spend months again in the Ronald McDonald House being fed by tubes and on oxygen and finding the right formula," she said. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press and CBC News. Interview with Darice Browning produced by Sarah Jackson.

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