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The infant formula shortage is the focus of 2 Capitol Hill hearings

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The infant formula shortage is the focus of two hearings in Congress today and also the focus of many parents' troubles. NPR's Allison Aubrey is covering the story. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What questions do lawmakers have for the executives who are expected today?

AUBREY: They will be asking about supplies and safety. I think a lot of eyes will be on the executive from Abbott, the maker of brands such as Similac. Abbott's very large plant in Michigan has been closed since February due to contamination concerns, which is what triggered the shortage. The company says it has been making upgrades to the plant and addressing issues raised after an FDA inspection. This includes updating water, cleaning and maintenance procedures at the facility.

INSKEEP: Well, this is tricky because the FDA closed the plant. Obviously, you don't want an unsafe plant. But now the FDA itself is facing questions about its course here.

AUBREY: That's right. Well, the head of the FDA told lawmakers last week that the Michigan plant could reopen soon. So there will be questions today on the timing. It's going to take about 6 to 8 weeks after the plant is reopened to get formula made there on store shelves. In the meantime, Abbott has been importing formula from its facility in Ireland. The FDA said yesterday 2 million cans from the U.K. will be sent beginning in June. And all these imported products will help bolster supplies while everyone waits for this plant to come back online.

INSKEEP: Well, how much more anxious are parents getting as these days become weeks and months?

AUBREY: Well, I spoke to a pediatrician in Louisiana at the Ochsner Hospital for Children, Dr. Elizabeth Sack, who told me the good news is that she has not heard of any parents that don't have enough formula right now to feed their infants. So it's really the anticipatory anxiety of what if - you know, what if the shortage gets worse? - that stresses parents out. She sees this among moms of newborns, especially if breastfeeding isn't going well.

ELIZABETH SACK: And I think now there's this added pressure for moms that there's no backup or potentially no backup if breastfeeding fails. That's one of the main things I'm seeing in my own practice, and it's been really unfortunate.

AUBREY: Because having an infant is stressful enough without this extra kind of a concern.

INSKEEP: It's good to hear that, at least in that case, people are finding something. Even though there's a shortage, they're finding formula somewhere. But what happens if it does get worse?

AUBREY: Yeah. Well, it is not safe to water down formula to try to make the can last longer. Pediatricians say that can cause a drop in babies' sodium levels. Babies won't get enough nutrients. In a pinch, a doctor writing on an American Academy of Pediatrics site say it - says it might be OK to give infants six months and older cow's milk for a brief period of time.

INSKEEP: OK.

AUBREY: Dr. Sack told me she was kind of surprised to read that tip on there because cow's milk is generally not ideal, not recommended, for young infants.

SACK: I think for them to make that statement that, in a pinch, cow's milk can be given, I think it speaks to the severity of the situation.

AUBREY: She says the shortage deserves to be treated as a national emergency since formula is essential for the survival of many infants.

INSKEEP: Oh, so the conclusion here is cow's milk is not actually good, but a little better than nothing, and that's how desperate it is.

AUBREY: In a pinch, for less than a week.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEVERKIN'S "SILHOUETTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.