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Factories have boosted production, but baby formula is likely to stay in short supply

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

A troubled baby formula plant in Sturgis, Mich., reopened over the weekend. That's good news, but formula is still hard to come by in some parts of the country. And analysts say it could be weeks before supplies are back to normal and anxious parents can relax. In Sturgis, the Abbott plant was shuttered for the last three months over suspected contamination. Formula makers have been scrambling to make up for the missing supply.

NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now with more on this. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi.

PFEIFFER: And, Scott, now that Abbott is making formula again at this Michigan plant, how long before it actually shows up on store shelves?

HORSLEY: It's going to take some time. For the moment, Abbott is only making specialized formula in Sturgis for babies with particular dietary needs. That's the most urgent concern. A few babies have actually had to be hospitalized over the lack of specialized formula. The first of the new batches should be available in about two weeks. And Abbott also hopes to restart making regular formula in Sturgis as soon as possible, but it hasn't given a precise timetable. You know, before it shut down in February, this plant used to produce about 20% of the nation's overall formula supply, so it's left a pretty big hole to fill.

PFEIFFER: What can you tell us about the overall availability of formula right now?

HORSLEY: It has taken a hit. Other manufacturers have stepped up production, but in-stock rates at grocery stores have been falling in recent weeks, and that's been a source of concern for a lot of parents.

I talked to Derrick Runkle who manages the Berry Foods IGA grocery store in Cleveland, Ga. He's been posting notices on the store's Facebook page whenever a formula delivery comes in, and he says there's a lot of interest.

DERRICK RUNKLE: You know, we're a little grocery store, but I think it probably got, like, maybe 200 shares in an hour or something like that on Facebook. Yeah, it was just lot of people still looking for some formula for their kids, and we're just - what little bit we get in, we're trying to help out with everyone. I'm trying to look for the formula that my kid needs, too, so I understand everyone's pain.

HORSLEY: Runkle's son is 10 weeks old, and it's been an anxious 10 weeks. Formula supplies have been up and down during that period, he told me, but it does seem to be getting a little bit better. The store got a delivery just today.

PFEIFFER: Scott, as you described, the restarting of the Sturgis plant, it sounded like a slow process. What's being done in the meantime to boost supplies?

HORSLEY: The Biden administration has been flying in formula from other countries. A fifth planeload is expected later this week carrying Nestle formula from Germany. Last week, the FDA gave a green light to import more Nestle formula from a factory in Mexico, although the first of those deliveries are not expected until next month.

Historically, most of the formula consumed in the U.S. has been made domestically, and other U.S. factories are trying to crank out as much as they can. As part of that strategy, formula makers have been concentrating on their most popular varieties and the most popular sizes. So shoppers may find less variety to choose from on store shelves, but that's part of an effort to get as much formula out there as possible.

PFEIFFER: And what's the verdict on how that's working so far?

HORSLEY: Well, if you look at the total volume of formula that's being sold in the country, it's actually up considerably from where it was before the Abbott plant was shut down. That's especially been true in the last few weeks as all the formula crunch has been in the news. KK Davey, who tracks scanner data for the market research firm IRI, says parents are understandably nervous, so whenever they see formula on the supermarket shelf, they are stocking up, buying more than they usually would. And, of course, that just adds to the supply challenge.

In some ways, this is reminiscent of the great toilet paper run of 2020, and some stores are limiting how much formula customers can buy. Berry Foods in Georgia, for example, it's one can per customer. The store manager and anxious new dad Derrick Runkle says he's just trying to help as many people as he can.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Scott Horsley, thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.