By MJ Lee, CNN White House Correspondent
The Biden administration is confronting a barrage of questions and criticism for the national baby formula shortage that has anxious and angry parents hopping from store to store in search of baby food.
The White House was unable to point to federal guidance last Thursday on what parents struggling to find formula should do, and recommended that families reach out to their doctors and pediatricians if they were worried about their babies’ health. Then on Friday, it unveiled a new website: HHS.gov/formula.
“We recognize that parents have a lot of questions,” then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. The new website, she said, is aimed at providing “resources and places that parents can go to obtain formula, including contacts with companies, food banks (and) health care providers.”
The webpage lists contact information for a number of baby food manufacturers including Gerber, Reckitt and Abbott — the company at the center of the major recalls dating back to February that prompted the nationwide shortage. The site also points families to resources like local food banks, links to the website for the national nutrition assistance program known as “WIC,” as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics, and offers general safety guidelines. (No, you should not water down formula or try to make it at home.)
A CNN reporter tested out some of those resources to try to determine how helpful they are likely to be for parents who are desperately looking to procure baby formula. The exercise resulted in apologetic customer service representatives, one hold time that lasted well over an hour, and serious challenges in finding baby formula through some of the main suggestions listed on the new HHS website.
Abbott’s consumer hotline: ‘No, we do not (answer questions by phone)’
We first tried calling the 1-800 consumer hotline for Abbott, the baby formula manufacturer behind brands like Similac and EleCare. Formula made at the manufacturer’s Michigan plant was connected to infant illness and deaths, and it could be many more weeks before the plant is producing formula again.
An automated message stated that information about Abbott’s recall can be found at Similacrecall.com, which doesn’t appear to have too much information other than recall notices dating back to February. When a representative got on the phone, they too, told us that the Abbott website would have “the most up to date information.”
Are they able to answer any questions over the phone? “No, we do not,” the representative said.
Bottom line: the Abbott hotline does not appear to be a sure-fire way for parents to get their hands on baby formula.
Meanwhile, Abbott’s “urgent product request line” — also listed on the HHS website — requires that a pediatrician fax over a form, along with a physician’s order, to Abbott.
Abbott Nutrition said in a statement Friday that all of its other production facilities are running at full capacity. The company said that since February, it has imported “millions of cans” of powdered infant formula into the US from its facility in Cootehill, Ireland. They have also converted other manufacturing lines at a production facility in Columbus, Ohio, to make more ready-to-feed Similac liquid formula.
Reckitt’s customer service line: 72 minutes of hold time
This option could drive some anxious parents over the edge.
Reckitt is the company that makes the popular baby formula brand Enfamil. We were warned as soon as we called the 1-800 number that they are experiencing longer than normal wait times. The elevator hold music is punctuated — every 30 seconds — by a female voice that says, “Please remain on the line. An expert will be with you shortly.”
On a Friday afternoon, our total wait time was one hour and 12 minutes before a customer service representative picked up. Is this wait time normal? It is these days, she said, saying the company has been dealing with significant hold times due to the nationwide formula shortage.
The representative offered to help look on the company’s website to see what might be available for purchase.
The conclusion: “Looks like we don’t have any products in stock.” Nothing? “We have sold out.”
She added that she also couldn’t predict when products will be available again through their website, and also warned that if you do try to put in an order online, it could automatically get canceled.
After this story published Monday morning, a representative for Reckitt told CNN in a statement: “We understand how stressful this is for parents, and fully understand the importance of our role providing the single source of nutrition for many babies. Since the recall, we have increased our resources for online and telephone support, but unfortunately, the wave of inquiries is significant.”
They also recommended that parents try the Enfamil.com website as well as “smaller grocery stores they may not normally shop at” to search for what might be in stock.
Gerber’s webchat: ‘My heart does go out to you’
The third company that the HHS website recommends trying is Gerber. It says that the company’s “MyGerber Baby Expert” offers multiple ways — phone, text, webchat and others — that parents can get in touch with consultants who can help “identify a similar formula that may be more readily available.”
We try sending a text. A representative is able to recommend several Gerber products that are similar to a certain line of Similac formula, but the bad news is that they are both out of stock on their website.
“I understand and I am so sorry :(” they wrote. “These are unforeseen times right now and the team is working hard to get product on the shelves.”
The webchat yields a similar response. “My heart does go out to you in these times,” the representative wrote. Gerber is working around the clock to get formula on the shelves, they said, but these are indeed unforeseen circumstances.
When we called Gerber’s 1-800 number, we were able to get a representative on the phone without delay. They were able to point us to some formula products for both infants and toddlers.
Over the weekend, the company’s website appeared to show that out of 24 different formula lines, 16 were out of stock. Gerber told CNN on Friday that it has ramped up production and accelerated its efforts to get more baby formula to the market amid the shortage in the US. The company said it is running factories at capacity, and it has flown in products made outside the country to speed up availability.
The HHS.gov/formula website also suggests that families reach out to local food banks, pantries and charities that might be able to help.
It also links to the website for the federal WIC benefits. Half of the infant formula in the United States is purchased using those benefits, and the administration has said it is working to broaden the range of formula brands that are eligible for purchase using WIC.
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Carma Hassan contributed to this story.