Don’t try this at home: WA WIC director warns against DIY baby formula
Like the rest of the country, Washington is undergoing a major baby formula shortage.
Pandemic-related supply chain disruptions had already been causing shortages for formula, but the issue was exacerbated in February when Abbott Nutrition issued a national recall for three brands of formula and shut down its Michigan plant over formula contamination. Two babies died and two others were hospitalized with Cronobacter bacterial infections after consuming formula made at the plant.
“Here in Washington, it hit us hard. We have about 18,000 babies who use formula made by that company that was part of the recall,” said Paul Throne, director of the state’s Washington Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program. The WIC Program provides food, nutrition education, health services, and more to families in need across the state.
Then there are the thousands of babies who are not part of the WIC Program.
“We think about an equal number of kids who aren’t on WIC probably were also affected by the recalled formula,” Throne said.
While breastfeeding is “the best way to feed an infant if the family can breastfeed,” Throne said many families cannot breastfeed, or at least cannot exclusively breastfeed, due to health conditions. In his position as WIC director, he sees the lengths parents who rely on formula are going to to feed their children.
“The struggle is very real. We hear reports of people going from town to town, store to store, and even going from county to county before they can find the infant formula that’s right for their child,” Throne said.
One of these lengths, however, is too far. Throne said that some people online are sharing information on how to make DIY baby formula at home with ingredients like evaporated milk.
“It might be tempting to try to make formula at home, but it is extremely discouraged,” Throne said. “And the reason is, we cannot make formula in our own kitchens that actually contains all the nutrients a baby needs, and we can’t make it under sterile conditions.”
After all, the Abbott formula was recalled in the first place because of a lack of cleanliness. According to the CDC, cronobacter can get into formula at home, from surfaces like counters.
Parents who are not able to find their usual formula should contact their baby’s doctor to see if there is another brand that might work in its place for their baby’s individual needs.
“Some formulas do have good substitutes that are easy to find, and some of them are very special and it’s not quite as easy to find a different one that would work,” he said. “Definitely talk to your child’s health care provider and see what they recommend.”
People in the WIC program are urged to call their local WIC clinic, and those not in the WIC Program should contact WIC at 1-800-322-2588 to see if they qualify.
“We serve almost a quarter of a million people in Washington every year on the WIC Program, and there are still more that could be served that just don’t know about it,” Throne said, adding, “It’s also important for people to know that WIC is something they may be eligible for, even if they haven’t thought of it before, or maybe they assumed that they weren’t eligible.”
Then there is the issue of people not buying the formula that actually is on the shelves, because they are nervous about formula from Abbott. Throne wants people to remember that formula on the shelves is safe, as it is not the same lot numbers that were recalled.
“One of the best things people can do is help spread the word that formula is safe — if it’s on the shelf, it’s an approved product,” Throne said.
Throne says the shortage should get better as Abbott works to get back on track. The federal government is also working with other formula companies on increasing output and with foreign countries about possibly importing more formula.