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Baby formula shortage leaves Tampa Bay area shelves empty

It's a national problem local parents are dealing with too. Stores have implemented purchase restrictions as parents scramble to feed their babies.

TAMPA, Fla. — A nationwide shortage of baby formula has parents and caregivers scrambling. One reason this is happening: Abbott Labs voluntarily recalled baby formula in February. 

On Friday morning, Congress said it will investigate the causes of the low supply. Right now, 43 percent of formulas are out of stock across the country. To help mitigate this issue, the Biden administration has launched a website to help parents find the formulas they need. To visit that newly launched page, click here.

A day earlier, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo sent the FDA a letter requesting transparency.

"Floridians are worried about the lack of formula availability," Dr. Ladapo wrote, in part, on behalf of the Florida Department of Health. "Our agency is charged with the protection of public health and needs as much information as possible to continue serving our most vulnerable residents and prevent potentially catastrophic public health consequences."

What does this shortage look like in Tampa Bay?

For Monica Spears, each new day brings new obstacles in finding formulas. She's a foster parent in Hillsborough County. 

"Every single day I get a phone call," Spears said. "Every day I get a phone call for a new baby placed."

Each new baby she cares for comes with specific needs. Some of the children she cares for are born with addiction and require specialty formula. Substituting the formulas can cause digestive issues. 

"Mostly it’s just not available," Spears said. "We have the new babies that come that were in the hospital or in the NICU for weeks, they’re on sensitive formulas. Babies that have milk allergies, protein allergies soy allergies, all of those things are issues because those are the formulas that are really mostly not on the shelves right now."

It's a heartbreaking moment for a parent to not be able to give a child what they need. 

"One comfort for a baby is food and sleep," Spears said. "And if you can’t provide that for them it’s painful for them as a parent"

So what does Monica do? She calls Kennedy Cares Tampa Bay. The organization is not a baby formula bank; but over the last few months, formula has been their number one request. 

"It’s probably daily we get four or five, people put posts up saying I need this kind of formula I can’t find it," Sandy Parlett said. Parlett founded Kennedy Cares 8 years ago. The goal of her not-for-profit is to connect local families with the day-to-day items they need.

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay

The shortage is also exacerbated by U.S. trade laws. 

"The USMCA, the updated version of the North American free-trade agreement, actually reduces the amount of infant formula we get from Canada," Dr. Victor Claar; Associate Professor of Economy at Florida Gulf Coast University, said. "And Canada is nearby it has its own equivalent of the FDA, but we have decided we want to restrict the amount of baby formula that comes from our northern neighbor, and again in a crisis this seems like a silly rule."

Claar said when it comes to the FDA, it's a balance. But sometimes the scales don't tip in parents' favor.

"On one hand, they want to protect us and keep us safe, and on the other hand, those rules that they put in place sometimes come with consequences," Claar said. "What we have right now is a system of existing rules and regulations that were intended to keep us safe that are actually making us worse off than we would’ve otherwise."  

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