As It Happens

Father drives 1,600 km to find formula for his daughter, ends up with two cans

Mac Jaehnert says he drove about 1,600 kilometres around Washington state to try to find infant formula for his baby daughter MacKenzie and, at the end of it, he was only able to find two cans of the formula she needs.

Mac Jaehnert's daughter was born three months premature and needs a specific type of formula

Mac and Emily Jaehnert with their daughter, MacKenzie, who was born three months premature. Mac has been scouring the area around Richland, Wash. for baby formula to feed his daughter and help other families as well. (Mac Jaehnert/Facebook)

Story Transcript

Mac Jaehnert says he drove about 1,600 kilometres around part of Washington state to try to find infant formula for his baby daughter MacKenzie and, at the end of it, he was only able to find two cans of the formula she needs.

"I was also looking for cans for other parents, I was able to find some of those, but looking for the specific brand that my kid needed, I was able to find one on store shelves and I was able to find one from another parent whose baby had transitioned off of that formula onto solids, " Jaehnert told As It Happens guest host David Gray. 

"It was pretty devastating. It is a feeling unlike I've ever had," he said.

Jaehnert's family is just one of many affected by a baby formula shortage in the United States, the result of supply chain disruptions, stockpiling and a formula recall by a key manufacturer earlier this year.

Jahnert was looking for cans of Similac Neosure, and he says the two cans he found will last his family about a week and a half. 

"We were incredibly lucky that people are fortunate enough to understand the gravity of the situation and think to look in their closet or pantry," he said.

Jaehnert's daughter MacKenzie was born on December 8 last year, three months prematurely.  She was flown from Richland, Wash. to Seattle for specialized care.

"She spent 103 days in the hospital fighting every day, on and off ventilators, taking rounds of steroids, doctors coming in every day, doing everything they can to help this baby grow and gain weight," he said.

"Finally, they give her the all-clear and they let her out into the world and suddenly we're not able to provide the most basic thing for her. And we cannot find the baby formula that she needs."

What's behind the shortage

Like many industries during the pandemic, baby formula manufacturing has been affected by supply chain issues and labour shortages.

But the problem intensified when earlier this year four babies were hospitalized with bacterial infections and two of those babies later died. All had consumed baby formula made by Abbott Nutrition at a facility in Sturgis, Mich.

In mid-February, the company issued a voluntary recall for three powdered formula brands made there and production was paused. Because the company accounts for about a quarter of all infant formula made in the United States, according to NBC News, the shortage had a huge impact.

Shelves typically stocked with baby formula sit mostly empty at a store in San Antonio, Texas, on Tuesday, May 10. Parents across the U.S. are scrambling to find baby formula because supply disruptions and a massive safety recall have swept many leading brands off store shelves. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

In an apology printed in the op-ed section of the Washington Post on Sunday, Abbott's CEO Robert Ford noted that an FDA investigation did not find evidence in the plant of the bacteria that had sickened the four children, but did discover "a bacteria in our plant that we will not tolerate."

"We will not take risks when it comes to the health of children," wrote Ford.

But Jaehnert felt that the company did not do a good job of alerting parents about the recall and its effects.

"It was not communicated to me in any way that this shortage was coming. And when you place the trust in a company to feed your child and all of a sudden that rug is pulled out from under you with absolutely no warning, it's angering and infuriating," he said. 

He points out that manufacturers would have been aware of shortages long before consumers.

"They know when their trucks are leaving their warehouses and when they're not. They know when pallets are leaving to stores and when they're not and when they haven't been for two months," he said. "And now you're telling me that the entire supply chain has been empty for two months? Why were we not told about this?"

Working to end the shortage

The shortage has pressed the U.S. government into action, as desperate parents ask for help.

A U.S. military plane full of hypoallergenic baby formula, enough for half a million baby bottles according to the Associated Press, landed in Indianapolis after a flight from Europe on Sunday. It's the first in several planned flights in "Operation Fly Formula," a plan to use U.S. Defence Department commercial planes to bring in formula.

Crew members of an Air Force C-17 unload a plane load of baby formula at the Indianapolis International Airport in Indianapolis, Sunday, May 22. The 132 pallets of formula arrived from Ramstein Air Base in Germany. (Michael Conroy/The Associated Press)

The formula that arrived Sunday won't be sold in stores, but instead will be distributed through hospitals and pharmacies, a U.S. government official told CNN.

Some retailers have set limits on how much formula customers can buy at a time to avoid stockpiling.

Jaehnert pointed out that flying in the formula may not help some children, who may not be familiar with the brands being brought in.

"There are switching costs, particularly for medically fragile children who don't take easily to different formulas," he said. 

He says that because he's been talking to the media about his story, people are offering to send him cans of Neosure, though his family has refused to take some of the donations, in order to make sure others have access as well. 

"I'm not sure that my baby is going to be able to stay on the formula she needs until supply returns, in part because I'm uncomfortable keeping enough formula for my own kid while I know my neighbour's kids are hurting and aren't able to get the nutrition they need."

So Jaehnert says if the need arises, he is ready to hit the road again in search of more formula.

"I will do whatever it takes to get my daughter the nutrition that she needs to have every other opportunity that any other kid has to grow up."

Written by Andrea Bellemare with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Aloysius Wong.


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