2022 Elemental Formula Shortage

I’ve been writing for a smaller, limited audience in recent years, but I’m back today in this public forum to both critique (OK, criticize) the public relations debacle and bring attention to the health crisis related to the global formula shortage occurring right now. This just blows my mind on so many levels. And the responsibility of the shortage/supply doesn’t necessarily rest on any one person’s or group of people’s shoulders. It just SUCKS! It’s part of living with rare diseases while the rest of the world lives on in oblivion. Having said that, this is a public relations failure of epic proportions that anyone in corporate America should learn from. You, as a customer of any product, deserve to be treated with respect because you are a PERSON, not to mention a loyal customer.

Background: Elemental formula is a special type of formula where the proteins have been processed into pure amino acids. People with protein-resistant metabolic conditions, food allergies, and other rare conditions rely on this type of formula for supplemental or total nutrition. Sometimes the need is short-term, but most people need this long-term, typically lifelong.

Currently, Abbott has stopped producing elemental formula and has remained SILENT since the initial recall notice in February 2022. Meanwhile, Nutricia, Abbott’s number one competitor, put out a mass email to their customers explaining that product availability would be an issue “for the next couple of months” due to Abbott’s customers coming over to Nutricia, but they assured everyone that they were taking specific actions to meet demand and would alleviate the issues as soon as possible. This was appreciated and gave us hope. But then Nutricia started taking customer’s money through online orders (the few products that were available for purchase on their website) and not informing customers of the backorder issue. Nutricia’s credibility has tanked in my view because it’s apparent our relationship is purely transactional and not at all relational as they led us to believe. This might sound bizarre or obvious at first, but for those of us who rely on Abbott and Nutricia to keep our children (or ourselves) alive, it feels like a huge slap in the face to be treated with such disregard. I currently have almost $500 tied up in a relatively small order of product that I have no ETA on. When I check my online order status, it says I should have received them already. When I called and spoke to a customer service rep this morning, she did offer a full refund since the only information she had regarding when the orders will be fulfilled said “TBD.” I was able to tell her to keep my money in hopes that the orders would be filled at some point, but I know not everyone can afford to do that. This is just so wrong.

Let me share something with you on the gravity of the formula shortage. There are people going on TPN (total parenteral nutrition, meaning specialized nutrition is fed intravenously, bypassing the GI tract altogether) right now because there is literally nothing safe for them to consume. The reasons vary, but there are people whose ONLY source of nutrition comes from elemental formula. There are only a few available options on the market to begin with, and not all options are safe for any one individual. The problem with TPN is it’s VERY hard on your body and can lead to things like liver failure. This is not a “good option,” but it’s some people’s only option.

The root of the problem here is there is not enough competition in the marketplace. An article published by Dairy Industries International back in 2019 highlighted the increase in demand for such products due to increasing dairy allergies. While there are a few smaller operations entering the playing field, it’s incredibly hard to compete with the big players like Abbott and Nutricia. This crisis might actually give these smaller companies a chance to earn the trust of new customers and build a wider customer base. Additionally, even though demand is increasing, it’s still a sizeable risk for companies to add this product offering when the market is still relatively small compared to other more profitable products. Targeting a specialized market is very difficult to pull off successfully, but we’ve reached a critical moment where this NEEDS to happen.

The second problem, which is really just insult to injury at this point, is communication. Not communicating with your customers during times like this is offensive. The flow of information is what helps people make educated choices. Even if it doesn’t solve the immediate problem, it reduces stress and retains brand loyalty. Most people understand some things are out of people’s control. But someone is choosing to restrict communication with customers from both of these companies, and that feels negligent, not in a legal sense but in a humane sense. But as I said previously, these companies know they don’t have significant competition, so they know have the upper hand. If I ever need a pacemaker, it will likely be made by Abbott. In fact, most diagnostic tools used to determine and treat any ailment I incur will likely have the Abbott logo on it. This is why competition is necessary. Actually having to earn and retain customer loyalty serves everyone in the long-run.

This is a truly dire situation for many. And most people don’t even know it’s happening.

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