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A shortage of baby formula is worsening and causing some stores to limit sales

Baby formula is offered for sale at a big-box store on Jan. 13 in Chicago. Baby formula has been in short supply in many stores around the U.S. for several months.
Scott Olson
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Baby formula is offered for sale at a big-box store on Jan. 13 in Chicago. Baby formula has been in short supply in many stores around the U.S. for several months.

A shortage of baby formula is getting worse and leading some retailers to limit how much customers can buy in a given transaction.

During the week of March 13, some 29% of baby formula products were out of stock at retailers across the United States.

That's according to the product data firm Datasembly, which analyzed more than 11,000 sellers of baby formula in the country.

The out-of-stock percentage for baby formula hovered between 2% and 8% in the first seven months of last year, but it has been growing steadily since then and reached 23% in January, Datasembly reported.

Thousands of young babies across the country rely on formula each year. Just 25% of infants born in 2017 were fed exclusively through breastfeeding in their first six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The squeeze on baby formula comes as the U.S. economy continues to grapple with rising inflation and persistent supply chain issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Consumers have taken to social media to complain about bare shelves, and the shortages have prompted at least one national chain to ration its baby formula inventory.

Walgreens, the pharmacy giant with more than 9,000 stores across the U.S., is limiting purchases of all infant and toddler formula to three per transaction.

"Due to increased demand and various supplier challenges, infant and toddler formulas are seeing constraint across the country," a Walgreens spokesperson told NPR. "We continue to work diligently with our supplier partners to best meet customer demands."

This comes just two months after the health care company Abbott recalled some of its powdered baby formula over consumer complaints related to Cronobacter sakazakii and Salmonella Newport.

The company said none of the distributed products — including Similac, Alimentum and EleCare powder formulas — tested positive for the bacteria. However, it did find evidence of Cronobacter sakazakii in non-product contact areas of its Sturgis, Mich., manufacturing facility.

Abbott later expanded the recall after learning of the death of an infant who had consumed Similac PM 60/40 and tested positive for Cronobacter sakazakii, but it said the cause of the infection had not been determined.

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