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A baby formula shortage has Knoxville parents seeking alternatives

With store shelves empty and online retailers out of stock, some parents are considering measures they wouldn’t normally take to feed their infants.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Empty shelves in aisles across the country have parents scrambling, desperate for any solution to the baby formula shortage. The scarcity of formula was triggered in part by the closure of a Michigan manufacturing plant after two infants who consumed its products caught bacterial infections and died.

The Food and Drug Administration will announce specific actions to boost formula imports in the coming days, the officials said. The U.S. produces 98% of the infant formula it consumes. Chile, Ireland, Mexico and the Netherlands are potential sources of additional imports, according to the officials.

Abbott Nutrition, the nation’s largest baby formula manufacturer, issued a recall in February for several powered formulas. The move came after four infants who consumed products from its Sturgis, Michigan, plant were hospitalized with infections from the bacteria Cronobacter sakazakii. Two of the infants died.

During the first week of May, 43% of baby formula supplies were out of stock at stores across the U.S., according to Datasembly, a company that tracks retail data. Abbott said it can restart the Sturgis plant within two weeks if the FDA signs off, but it will take up to eight weeks for products to make it to stores.

President Joe Biden met earlier on Thursday with Walmart, Target, Reckitt and Gerber to discuss ways to ease the shortage. Biden has asked the Federal Trade Commission to use its power to monitor reports of price gouging amid the shortage, and the Justice Department is working with state attorneys general to deal with predatory behavior by retailers, the administration officials said.

The plant closure and recall have left parents scrambling to find baby formula. The shortage has prompted a "major surge in interest" in donor breast milk that's according to the Human Milk Bank Association of North America. 

With donor banks overwhelmed by an influx of donations, local mom Victoria Wells said she had to find another way to keep her milk from going to waste.

"We got to put it to good use and help some other little babies," Wells said.

She produces so much milk that her 3-month-old baby Cain can't drink it all. She doesn't want the milk to go to waste and is finding ways to help other moms in the community.

"He has always eaten a little more than other babies his age, per his rolls. But he eats about four and a half ounces every three hours and I pump anywhere from eight to twelve every three hours," Wells said.

That's two to three times the amount Cain eats. Pretty soon, Wells said, she accumulated two freezers full of breast milk. So far she's saved about 2,200 ounces.

 “Our freezer is full, I was like, I have 50 more bags in my freezer, what am I going to do with all of this?" she said.

Wells works at a daycare, constantly hearing the need other moms have for a way to feed their babies. She took to Facebook to offer it to her friends.

"My inbox is filling up and I'm trying to message people back,” she said. “I’ve already gotten rid of a lot of it.”

Wells was cleared by her doctor to donate milk, she said, but the milk bank she wanted to donate to waitlisted her. She then reached out to Children’s Hospital and was told they do not accept donated milk.

Dr. Cliff James is a pediatrician at Kids Central Pediatrics and warns about the risks that come along with feeding a baby another mother’s breast milk. He said breast milk is the healthiest for a baby, but it’s important you know what you are feeding your baby and how it is handled.

"We know there is nothing better for your baby than your breast milk," he said. "None of this is FDA regulated. We don't know the safety of this.” “If you are able to find a reputable place that has pretty stick criteria in place in testing the moms, storage, how do we transport this, when is it good by? Things like that, then I think that it’s probably safe and I think that it’s probably okay to do but just buying from someone that we don’t know online, probably not a great idea.”

If you're planning to get your breastmilk from another mother, it’s important to do your homework. Make sure you know where the milk is coming from and how it's being handled. Wells said she discloses all dietary information and meets the moms she sells to because she knows how important a baby's safety is.

"We are very grateful to be able to help other people," Wells said.

Wells said she had posted about her breast milk back before the formula shortage began but a recent post really took off. It got more than 1,500 shares from lots of moms in need from Tennessee and other states.

The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have instructed parents to check Abbott’s website to find out if they have a product under recall. The FDA is advising consumers not to use recalled Similac, Alimentum or EleCare powdered infant formulas.

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