A small selection of powdered infant formula was still available at this CVS in Santa Barbara. | Credit: Sarah Stephens

Following the voluntary recall of certain powdered infant formula products manufactured by Abbott Nutrition, the country has been thrown into an immense formula shortage — and Santa Barbara is not uniquely positioned.

While stores in Santa Barbara such as Target and Costco have begun limiting the number of formula cans a customer can buy, supermarkets like Albertsons, Vons, Whole Foods, and Bristol Farms have not. However, those supermarkets report that formula deliveries have been much smaller than before and that what remains on the shelf is the only stock they have.

Families who rely on the more popular formula brands, such as Enfamil, Similac, and Alimentum, may have to resort to generic brands or store-brand formula. But even those are beginning to fly off the shelves. 

Susan Liles, director of Nutrition Services/Women, Infants and Children for the Santa Barbara Public Health Department, said that Santa Barbara is not at a crisis level for now, but that specialty formulas are in short supply. These specialty formulas are recommended or even prescribed to infants who may have allergies, feeding issues, or special nutritional needs — making the formula shortage in the country that much more dire.

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The nationwide shortage began in February when Abbott Nutrition, the largest formula manufacturer in the country, closed its plant in Sturgis, Michigan, and voluntarily recalled certain lots of its Similac, Alimentum, and EleCare powdered infant formula because of potential contamination with a type of bacteria called Cronobacter sakazakii. There were two reported infant deaths caused by this bacteria, assumed to be from one of Abbott’s products produced at the Sturgis plant. (The FDA has published a full list of recalled brands here.)

Since the recall, parents have been desperately searching for baby formula supply online as in-store supplies dwindle. According to data analysis from Pattern, online demand for baby formula was up 1,348 percent last week nationwide. The analysis also determined demand is up 3,114 percent compared to the average of the rest of the year so far.

In response to the formula shortage, the Biden-Harris administration released a statement addressing the “shortfall in infant formula production.” While working with other federal agencies, the administration is collaborating with other formula manufacturers to increase production, import formula from abroad, and asking online distributors to limit the amount an individual can purchase in order to avoid the possibility of hoarding supplies. 

While Santa Barbara hasn’t yet faced the harsher realities that other cities in the state and country are, the shortage is likely to have an impact locally within the coming days or weeks until production and distribution increase. The California Department of Public Health/Women, Infants and Children Division (CDPH/WIC) urges families to call stores ahead of time to determine the availability of formula on the shelves before going out to try and purchase. Until then, WIC is evaluating store shipments and will direct families in need of infant formula to those retailers.

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