Military families are seeing the same shortage of baby formula in military stores that customers are finding in many civilian stores across the U.S.

For now, however, overseas and remote commissaries have adequate supplies of baby products on hand, said Kevin Robinson, spokesman for the Defense Commissary Agency.

“We will ensure all orders for overseas and remote stores receive priority for baby formula shipments,” he said, adding that it would be airlifted to overseas commissaries if necessary.

Throughout the pandemic, commissaries and exchanges have prioritized overseas shipments for products in short supply, like baby formula, because of the longer lead times for delivery and the often limited options for families outside the gate.

Military families stationed in the U.S. generally have the option of shopping outside the gate, but civilian stores are also seeing severe shortages of formula and families are having to search far and wide.

“The Defense Commissary Agency is not immune from the same supply chain issues suffered by other retailers, and we are quite aware of the current market situation impacting the supply of baby formula,” Robinson said. “The availability of baby formula for all our stores is fluid right now and evolving daily. We are working constantly with our distributors to address any product disruptions.

“We want our customers to know we are doing everything we can — and more — to get the products they need onto their store shelves, especially to our overseas commissaries,” Robinson said.

Military exchange officials have established a limit of five units of baby formula per person per purchase, similar to retailers outside the gate.

“Many of these [overseas] families might feel quite anxious about going to a local store because they can’t really read the label instructions and don’t know which formula is closest to what they are used to, unless they know someone who speaks the local language,” said Dr. Steven Abrams, immediate past chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition.

Abrams said it would be helpful if military physicians could give overseas families guidance if they have to go off the installation to get baby formula.

Why is there a shortage?

Infant formula shortages have been a problem since the start of the pandemic. But In February, Abbott voluntarily recalled all formula produced at a plant in Michigan after four infants fell ill with bacterial infections. That led to an immediate worsening of the shortages. The company makes formula under the Similac and other labels.

“All the other companies simply couldn’t ramp up in time in the United States,” Abrams said.

Depending on the region of the country, the supply of infant formula is running 40 percent to 50 percent below normal, Abrams said, and supplies of some of the most critical specialized formulas, such as hypoallergenic products, have completely dried up.

“Unfortunately, it’s not getting better,” he said. “If anything, it’s getting worse,” because the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t cleared Abbott to begin producing formula at that factory again.

In an announcement on its website, Abbott said it is taking corrective actions and working to increase the supply of infant formula production at its facilities, including ramping up its production of the Similac Ready-to-Feed liquid formula.

Baby formula in military stores

In addition to name brand baby formula, commissaries sell formula products under the store brand: Tippy Toes. Since February, sales of the Tippy Toes commissary brand formula have increased by 600%, said Rene Hunter, vice president of Spartan Nash Military Division. That company is under contract with the commissary agency as its supplier of private label products worldwide.

There is some product available. “As soon as we get it, it’s out,” she said.

But some people have also been hoarding. Spartan Nash’s reserve stock of the baby formula quickly disappeared. That reserve helps meet temporary jumps in demand, but when the demand continues, it takes a while to ramp up production, she said.

Spartan Nash officials are working to do just that, “and we expect to see positive results … by the end of June,” she said. Some Tippy Toes formula selections are comparable to specific Similac formulas, while others are comparable to specific Enfamil products. All are approved by the FDA and the European Union.

Military exchanges have been working with suppliers to rebuild their stock of baby formula.

Navy Exchange Service Command recently placed a number of special orders for baby formula in an effort to build up inventory in distribution centers and stores.

“We have also been aggressively activating brands and sizes not typically found in our previous baby formula assortment in an attempt to meet the demand,” said NEXCOM spokeswoman Kristine Sturkie.

Army and Air Force Exchange Service officials are also working with suppliers to get more products and to get products that haven’t historically been on AAFES shelves, said spokesman Chris Ward.

Not surprisingly, the exchanges’ online stores have also been affected by the shortages. In a recent check of the Navy Exchange website, there were 24 options for infant formula brands and sizes. Only one was available for purchase, and quantities were limited to five units per household.

Advice for families

In the meantime, Abrams has some advice.

  • Don’t make homemade baby formulas, period. Recipes are circulating on the internet that may seem healthy or less expensive, but they aren’t safe and don’t meet your baby’s nutritional needs. He notes that infant deaths have been reported from the use of some homemade formulas.
  • Don’t over-dilute in an effort to make the formula go further. This is dangerous because it can cause nutritional imbalances in your baby and lead to serious health problems.
  • Don’t hoard.
  • Be flexible about brand choices to the degree that you can, within U.S. brands. It’s okay to switch to any available formula, including store brands, unless your baby is on a specialized formula. Check with your pediatrician.
  • Check online for formula supplies, including the military exchange sites. But be careful buying formula elsewhere on the web. Make sure it’s from well-recognized distributors and pharmacies rather than individually sold or from auction sites, Abrams said. It’s not legal to send formula to the United States unless the FDA has approved it.
  • In the U.S., check smaller stores and drug stores, which may have some supply.
  • For families using the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, check with your local WIC office, or the Overseas WIC office.
  • For military members overseas, “the more difficult thing they’ll have to assess is being able to use — and feel comfortable using — local formulas, even though it might cost them more. But if you have to do it, you have to do it,” Abrams said.

“For the most part overseas, local formulas that come from local companies whose names they know, such as Nestle are reliable,” Abrams said. He noted Nestle has a bigger presence in manufacturing baby formula in Europe than in the United States. There are also several other European companies that sell a lot of baby formula that is fully tested and high quality, he said.

At overseas locations where there are U.S. bases, local baby formulas are likely to be well-regulated, he said.

“European standards are very high, as are most of the Asian standards, so [families] don’t have to worry that the formula is inadequate or going to harm their baby,” he said. “What they need to worry about is making sure it’s similar to what they were using, and making sure to have the correct dilution.”

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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