The baby formula shortage has birthed a shady online marketplace

After Ashley Diaz had her baby in early April, she faced a setback. She wasn’t producing enough breast milk. Her newborn son needed formula to supplement his nutrition. So she sent her mother to Target to stock up. She came back with only two boxes—the maximum allowed.

Now, many of those store shelves are empty, not only in Los Angeles, where Diaz lives, but across the United States. Parents are scrambling to find formula amid a nationwide shortage. And the situation has spawned an online secondary marketplace rife with misinformation, scams, and price gouging.  

It’s real live Hunger Games out here trying to find baby formula

— Cory Estrain (@cestrain222) May 11, 2022

To non-parents, the baby formula shortage may seem sudden, but it’s been quietly snowballing into a crisis for months. In February, Abbott Nutrition—the main provider of powdered infant formula to the US market—issued a recall of formulas from its factory in Sturgis, Michigan. Two babies had died from bacterial infections traced to the plant.

That recall brought an already strained supply chain to the breaking point. On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration and Abbott reached an agreement on steps to reopen the plant, according to Politico. Even though the company has said it can get the plant operating at full capacity in a couple of weeks, it will take months to ramp production back up to speed. One major obstacle is that neither the FDA nor Abbott has discovered why or how the contamination took place, and finding the root cause could take a few months.

Babies, of course, can’t wait months. Out of sheer desperation, many parents are turning to Instagram and TikTok for tips on where to find formula. Some videos describe how to make homemade versions, which is dangerous. Despite repeated warnings from the FDA that homemade or diluted formula lacks the critical nutrients babies’ delicate systems need, the recipes continue to be shared online. Some videos MIT Technology Review saw on TikTok have garnered thousands of views, with one reaching almost 150,000.

“It’s been a very hard time for formula-feeding mothers,” says Erin Moore, a pediatric nurse practitioner in Austin and a certified lactation consultant, who runs an Instagram page on feeding. Moore is especially worried because she’s seen the awful effects of poor nutrition in babies. “Diluting formula is never a safe option, because it can cause electrolyte imbalances in babies that are very delicate,” she says. “Making homemade formula can cause serious hospitalizations. I’ve seen what it does, and it’s not pretty.”

It’s not all dangerous recipe-swapping. Some parents have set up informal networks to connect those who need formula or milk with those who have some to spare. Moore launched her own Facebook page, Baby Formula Finder, to help create exactly this sort of quasi-marketplace. Similar exchanges have cropped up in traditional parenting forums on Facebook and in communities designed to address the crisis specifically.

Diaz is now on the other side of the crisis: she found herself with too much formula after her pediatrician sent her extra supplies. She tweeted about the excess and started receiving requests from across the country, but she wanted to donate the formula locally, so she joined a Facebook parents group.

Once in the Facebook group, however, Diaz came across some questionable behavior. “I started to receive messages and comments right away. Some were scam profiles from other countries. Some were people willing to buy them [her extra supplies] even though I was offering the formula for free,” she says.

What Diaz saw was a small slice of a much bigger problem: price gouging for baby formula online. 

Sites like eBay and Craigslist are listing formula for exorbitant prices. A recent search by MIT Technology Review found multiple sellers asking for over $300 for 12 containers of baby food on eBay, coming out to about $25 each. Normally, these containers would sell for $7 to $10.

Moore says parents who are on welfare are especially stressed. They receive their checks at the beginning of the month and have to scramble to beat other desperate parents—if they can—to get the specific brands of formula allowed by welfare rules, which are produced by Abbott, Gerber, and Mead Johnson.

Despite the FDA agreement, the crisis may worsen over the next few months, as supply-chain issues persist and the FDA continues monitoring production to keep formula safe. That could create another knock-on health crisis among babies forced to wean off formula too early, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies and hospitalization.

One crucial way to help combat the shortage might lie in getting women to donate excess breast milk, according to Lindsay Groff, executive director of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. She says the formula shortage has led to a 20% surge in demand at milk banks across the US—but there isn’t enough milk to go round. She’s hopeful that parents might spread the word online, urging their followers to donate breast milk if they can. 

In the meantime, parents are left at the mercy of others. Diaz was finally able to connect with a pregnant mom of a one-year-old in her area who was unable to breastfeed and needed formula for her child. “We exchanged messages on Facebook and I placed all the formula on my front porch and she picked it up within 30 minutes of speaking to each other,” she says. Many others haven’t been so lucky.