Vietnamese in US grapple with baby formula shortage

By Dang Khoa, Long NguyenJune 28, 2022 | 08:39 pm PT
Vietnamese in US grapple with baby formula shortage
Empty shelves show a shortage of baby formula at a CVS store in San Antonio, Texas, U.S. May 10, 2022. Photo by Reuters
The past few months have been a nightmare for Nguyen Thu Hien, who has been struggling to get infant formula amid a shortage plaguing the U.S.

Since April stores and retailers in the area have gradually been running out of formula. To feed her 10-month-old son, Hien has been visiting Target, Walgreens and other stores far away from home, some even two hours away, only to find shelves that used to be filled with formula bare.

Last weekend the 28-year-old rushed to a pharmacy 30 minutes away from her home in Anaheim, California State, after a friend called to tell her she saw it stocking baby formula. Fortunately, she was able to get one small tin.

"But it is only enough to feed my baby for a week," Hien, who has difficulties breastfeeding, lamented.

"I feel helpless when I can't even get the most basic product to keep my baby fed and nourished."

There is similar frustration throughout the country as a baby formula shortage grips the U.S.

Formula is the only option for many parents who cannot produce enough milk to meet their child's requirements.

Others choose not to breastfeed due to pain or discomfort, while some are away from their children for the majority of the day due to work. Women who adopt children or use a surrogate are also unable to produce milk.

The U.S. has been in the grip of a severe shortage for the last few months. A shortage caused by Covid-related supply chain issues erupted into a full-fledged crisis after Abbott Laboratories, maker of Similac and specialty hypoallergenic formulas, closed its Michigan plant in February following reports of bacterial infection in children who consumed its products.

Despite the government's emergency response over the last month, which included flying in formula from abroad and relaxing regulatory restrictions, the supply situation is worsening.

Inventories are hitting new lows, according to data shared with CNN by market research firm Information Resources Incorporated (IRI).

More than 21 percent of formula products - powder, ready-to-drink and liquid – were unavailable during the week ending June 19 compared with a typical 10 percent rate until a nationwide infant formula recall by Abbott Nutrition in February.

Rates for powder formula were even worse, with IRI data showing that more than 27 percent of products were out of stock.

In Fairfax, Virginia State, Nguyen Quynh Trang is using the last can of baby formula for her 13-month-old son. She has called stores and suppliers all over the D.C. area to ask about new shipments.

"I want to get a new tin before the current one runs out next week, I am desperate," she said.

The 27-year-old has visited many supermarkets in the last few weeks to look for formula but has found only empty shelves.

Top retailers like Target, CVS and Walgreens have limited the number of tins people can buy to ensure there is enough to go around, but there was none when Trang went.

Cans of Enfamil baby formula, produced by Mead Johnson, on partially empty shelves in a Target store, amid continuing nationwide shortages in infant and toddler formula, in San Diego, California, U.S., May 25, 2022. Photo by Reuters

Cans of Enfamil baby formula, produced by Mead Johnson, on partially empty shelves in a Target store, amid continuing nationwide shortages in infant and toddler formula, in San Diego, California, U.S., May 25, 2022. Photo by Reuters

Online, private sellers are gouging desperate mothers, demanding double or triple the normal price.

Tran Thu Linh of Seattle, Washington state, spends hours driving around to various cities looking for baby formula. She also tries to buy online, but products are out of stock on Amazon and other e-commerce sites.

The sight of empty grocery store shelves is an "unwelcome reminder" of the pandemic's early days for her.

Linh also seeks the help of family members and friends living in various places, telling them to pre-purchase or notify her if they see it at their stores.

"If I'm lucky, I might find one on my fourth or fifth attempt.

"There have been weeks when I could not find any, making me feel despressed when I go home empty-handed," the mother of a six-month-old said with a sigh.

In Texas, Thao Nguyen has to go to the supermarket early in the morning to hunt for milk for her baby.

"The supermarket opened at 7 a.m., but the shelves were empty when I reached there at 7:30.

"Five more people were looking for baby formula."

Many people, including Nguyen, have also resorted to trying their luck on social media.

She made a post on Facebook in early June and received responses from people who had a lot of tins of formula and were willing to share or had switched to another type of milk and had leftovers.

Linh too tried this out: "Like me, many parents have turned to Facebook for assistance."

The media has been reporting about people seeking to profiteer, exacerbating the shortage for others.

"The lack of baby formula is taking a huge emotional and financial toll on many concerned parents like me," Linh said.

Some people have turned to the black market, ordering online European brands that are not allowed to be legally imported into the U.S.

Authorities have repeatedly warned against buying milk that has not been approved for sale in the country

Customs officials seized US$30,000 worth of European formula last year, claiming it lacked appropriate nutritional labeling and could not be guaranteed as safe.

Le Thanh Huong of California, who has a 15-month-old son, said: "Do I have any option? I can't let my baby go hungry."

The government has launched Operation Fly Formula to import more formula, but stocks are not improving. According to experts, it will take at least a couple of months for this to change as supply levels and consumer perceptions level out.

Meanwhile, Hien has asked her family in Vietnam to send some formula for her infant.

"I have to wait for an acquaintance to fly them to the U.S. in August. I have to feed my baby less until then."

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