Mothers on WIC program who need formula should call health department; others should call pediatrician, health secretary says

Published 2:34 pm Friday, June 10, 2022

By Melissa Patrick

As Kentucky families struggle to find baby formula for their infants and no immediate end in sight, Kentucky lawmakers discussed ways to improve the situation at the June 2 meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Health, Welfare and Family Services.

The shortage is largely the result of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigation of Abbott Nutrition‘s Michigan factory that resulted in it shutting down in February. The investigation was prompted by four bacterial infections in infants who had consumed formula from the company’s Michigan plant. Abbot makes up to 40% of the formula market in the United States.

Abbott announced last Saturday that it had resumed production at the factory after meeting initial requirements agreed to with the FDA as part of a consent decree the company entered into on May 16.

But that doesn’t mean an immediate end to the shortage. Abbott says its priority is production of EleCare, a special formula for children with multiple allergies, before it ramps up production of its other products. The initial EleCare product is expected to be released “on or about June 20,” Abbott’s release said.

Last week, FDA Administrator Robert Califf  told lawmakers that the baby formula shortage in the U.S. will likely not be resolved until late July.

On June 2, Datasembly, a retail data firm, reported that the nationwide out-of-stock rate for formula in the week ending May 28 was 74%, up from 70% the week before and 45% the week before, according to Bloomberg. Kentucky’s latest out-of-stock rate is 76.7%, a slight increase from 75% the week before.

President Joe Biden has done several things to increase access to formula, including invoking the Defense Production Act to mandate increased production and importing formula manufactured overseas.

Legislators and Beshear

The day before the health committee meeting, Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, a co-chair, published an opinion article that urged Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear to issue a plan for how to deal with the shortage, saying “We have heard nothing from Gov. Beshear on what families are to do.”

Moser took several jabs at Beshear’s handling of the shortage and said he should issue executive orders to increase the production of formula and address price gouging, as governors in other states have done.

“I am calling on him to make a statement and do what he can to address this shortage because Kentucky families struggle every day to find the necessary supplies for their children,” Moser wrote.

At the committee meeting, Eric Friedlander, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said there are already anti-price gouging statutes on the books that should continue to be enforced.

Moser said the state attorney general’s office told her that any anti-price gouging policies specific to formula need to be tailored specifically to this food product. “I think it’s worth looking into, just to provide some protections,” she said.

She also noted that Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles (whom she is supporting for governor) is calling for donations of formula through his Kentucky Hunger Initiative.

Beshear answered several questions on the topic at his regular weekly news conference, in Frankfort just after the committee meeting in Northern Kentucky. “It’s certainly something that I’m concerned about,” he said, adding that the FDA should have seen the ramifications of shutting down the Abbott plant.

“I’m going to push to ensure that every time the FDA makes one of these decisions, and I get they’re making it in terms of immediate health, but they need to be providing a long-term analysis of the ramifications, how this impacts our economy, and different supply chains so in the very least, the president, governors, Congress is made immediately aware of what could happen,” Beshear said.

Beshear was not asked about price gouging or ways to increase formula production or price gouging, He encouraged people on Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, to call their local health department or their community WIC agency and all others to reach out to their pediatrician.

Friedlander did likewise at the committee meeting, adding that those who are not part of the WIC program should reach out to their pediatrician.

He said the state is looking at ways to take back formula from families who have excess supplies and redistribute it, but the rules governing that are pretty stringent. He also encouraged families to check out online resources to locate formula such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website at hhs.gov/formula.

Health departments, WIC and retailers

Kentucky has taken advantage of federal waivers that allow the WIC program to cover more types and sizes of formula since February. Click here to see the list of approved formulas available to WIC participants.

“We’re doing pretty much everything we can to try to help families find the formula they need,” Cathy Winston, nutrition manager at the Northern Kentucky Health Department, told the committee. “And it’s been a real challenge.”

Moser commended the department for its efforts, but suggested more needs to be done for families not on WIC, by providing information to them about what substitutes are acceptable if they can’t find the baby formula they normally use. “We have some desperate families out there,” she said.

Shannon Stiglitz, a lobbyist for the Kentucky Retail Federation, walked the legislators through challenges that retailers face in the formula shortage, including supply-chain issues that started during the pandemic, the need to limit on purchases to minimize panic buying, and efforts to minimize theft.

Stiglitz said four baby-formula manufacturers in the country is “too few,” and said Abbott has contracts with 30 of the 31 states that use a single provider, exacerbating the shortage for WIC families.

Breastfeeding as an option

Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, encouraged new and expectant mothers to consider breastfeeding and consult their doctors about it.

“You won’t have to worry about any of this., and you can provide your child with the nutrition that it needs, probably the best nutrition that your baby could have,” said Alvarado, a physician. “So I would encourage moms to think about that. That’s really the answer for this moving forward.”

Some new mothers don’t want to breastfeed, or have to rely on formula for several reasons; they may have an illness, incompatibility with work schedules, or issues with lactation or their baby’s latching to a breast.