Baby-Formula Shortage Prompts Rationing at Target, Kroger, Walgreens and CVS

( WSJ )

The biggest U.S. retailers are rationing baby formula as a recall by the maker of Similac and other popular brands exacerbates already-spotty supply in much of the country.

As of Tuesday, Walmart Inc., Target Kroger CVS Health and Walgreens Boots Alliance have limited the quantities of many baby formulas that consumers are able to buy online or in some stores.

A Walmart spokeswoman said stores in most states have a five-per-day limit on baby formula at the request of the Food and Drug Administration. CVS said it recently began limiting purchases in stores and online to three per consumer. Walgreens said it implemented limits in stores and online last month. Target decline to comment, and Kroger didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Parents say that baby formula has been hard to find for months in parts of the country. Supplies were further strained by a February recall by Abbott Laboratories, one of the biggest manufacturers, after consumer complaints of bacteria contamination that could cause severe illness in infants.

Four infants who consumed its products were hospitalized and one died. The company expanded the recall, which involved powdered versions of its Similac, Alimentum and EleCare brands made at the same Michigan facility, on March 1 after being informed of the death of another infant that consumed its product.

Abbott said Tuesday that it is taking steps to increase formula availability. The company is increasing Similac production at other FDA-registered facilities, shipping formula from Europe by air and adding facilities capable of producing formula for infants with specific needs. It is also sharing supply information with rival formula makers to help them better meet demand.

The FDA has said it is investigating complaints of four cronobacter illnesses and one salmonella illness that resulted in infant hospitalizations as early as September in Minnesota, Texas and Ohio.

Cronobacter illnesses, which include sepsis and meningitis, are rare but can be lethal for infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Salmonella can cause fever and digestive issues, and sometimes severe illness, according to the CDC.

Abbott, when it expanded the recall, said that none of its distributed products tested positive for the presence of cronobacter or salmonella. The company said that it tests for pathogens including cronobacter and salmonella before releasing its products.

The CDC performed whole genome sequencing on cronobacter samples available from two children who were sickened and found that the bacteria wasn’t closely related to the strains found in samples obtained from the Michigan facility.

Manufacturers and retailers have differed over the severity of long-running shortages of baby formula and who was to blame. Before the Abbott recall, retailers blamed supply-chain problems for troubles keeping some stores stocked, while formula makers said there weren’t widespread problems on the manufacturing side.

In January, formula shortages were spotty and limited to certain areas and retailers; supply levels were sufficient nationwide on average, according to IRI, a market researcher. For the week ended April 3, retailers nationwide had baby formula out-of-stock 13% of the time. An out-of-stock rate above 10% is typically considered a problem.

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