Commissary officials have started limiting the amount of certain specialty baby formula products shoppers can buy, as the agency deals with the shortage affecting parents of infants nationwide.
The limits, which began May 13, vary by location based on purchasing limits within state level Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition programs, commissary officials said in an announcement Tuesday. Stores overseas are tied to the purchasing limits through the WIC-Overseas program. The limits apply to all specialty baby formula.
The limits are similar to those being implemented by commercial retailers and in military exchanges, the announcement stated. At least a week earlier, military exchanges established limits of five units per customer, per purchase, and those limits apply to all baby formula.
Baby formula stocks in overseas commissaries are at about 70% of what would normally be on shelves. U.S. commissary stocks are even lower, about 50% of normal, officials said.
“If the availability of baby formula becomes an issue for overseas commissaries, the agency will airlift product, if necessary, assuming the products are available,” said Bill Moore, director and CEO of the Defense Commissary Agency.
Depending on the region of the country, the supply of infant formula is running 40 percent to 50 percent below normal in commercial stores, but supplies of some of the most critical specialized formulas, such as hypoallergenic products, have been even more depleted.
Babies who aren’t breast-fed generally are fed formula for the first 12 months of their lives.
“We’re implementing purchase limits because of increased demand and to ensure that everyone has equal access to essential items, and to prevent ‘panic buying’ where product is available,” Moore said. “The availability of baby formula for all our stores is fluid right now and evolving daily. We are working with our distributors to increase our supply levels of these critical products.”
Commissaries in Europe have options to get baby formula through local producers. Those products are sometimes used to supplement stocks of U.S. products when there are shortages. But there are no approved options for locally produced baby formula in the Pacific, officials said. Those stores are dependent on the commissary agency’s U.S. distributors.
“Across our commissaries, we are in the same position as commercial retailers,” Moore said. Distributors are receiving limited allocations, essentially less than they are ordering from manufacturers. That limits the amount of formula going to commissaries.
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, in an earlier interview with Military Times. That company is under contract with the commissary agency as its supplier of private label products worldwide.
At the center of the formula shortage is a single factory: Abbott Nutrition’s plant in Sturgis, Michigan. The facility is the largest of its kind in the U.S. and source of leading formula brands such as Similac.
In mid-February, Abbott announced it was recalling various lots of three powdered infant formulas from the plant, after federal officials began investigating rare bacterial infections in four babies who were fed formula. Two of the infants died. But it’s not certain the bacteria came from the plant; strains found at the plant didn’t match the two available samples from the babies.
The company halted production while Food and Drug Administration inspectors conducted a six-week investigation of the plant.
A preliminary report released in March found traces of a bacteria — cronobacter— on several surfaces throughout the plant, though not in areas used to make the powder. Plant records showed Abbott had detected the bacteria eight times in its products or facility since 2019.
On Monday, U.S. officials announced a deal with Abbott that paves the way to restart production at the Michigan plant. But it’s not yet clear how soon the site will be up and running.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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.