In truth, the United State's baby-formula crisis began not weeks, but months ago — in February, when an Abbott Nutrition manufacturing plant in Sturgis, Michigan was cited by the federal government after a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigation discovered contaminants in its infant formula.
At that point, Abbott’s plant was linked to at least four cases of bacterial infection — one of which had turned deadly. According to the FDA, bacterial contamination of certain Abbott Nutrition powdered formulas manufactured in a Sturgis, Michigan facility could lead to the deadly Cronobacter sakazakii or salmonella infections in infants who consume the impacted products.
Separate from the recall, Abbott was already facing more than 50 lawsuits over its cow’s milk-based infant formula and fortifiers.
In those cases, parents and caregivers allege babies died or got sick from a gastrointestinal disease called necrotizing enterocolitis or NEC. Premature infants who consume cow’s milk-based formulas or fortifiers are at high risk of severe complications or death if they develop NEC.
Included in Abbott’s February recall are the following products:
Some investigators and experts say the baby-formula shortage crisis began — in reality — years before Abbott’s February recall, due in large part to the company’s virtual monopoly over the baby formula market in the United States. This monopoly, experts argue, created a breeding ground for severe issues to arise.
No matter the root cause, states like Tennessee, Texas, and Iowa are facing severe shortages, and parents are resorting to extreme measures to get their hands on much-needed formulas.
The U.S.’s Infant Formula Crisis: How We Got Here
In the United States, 90% of the multi-billion dollar baby formula industry is in the hands of just four for-profit companies — Abbott Nutrition chief among them.
Firms like Abbott are in the never-ending pursuit of profit. Accordingly, the company uses only a few facilities to generate its baby formula products, which helps minimize costs and maximize revenues. Indeed, according to investigators, the Michigan facility that was shut down by the FDA was responsible for roughly 20% of all the baby formula in the United States.
Moreover, according to NPR journalist Scott Horsley, Abbott’s Sturgis plant was a “critical supplier of specialized formula for infants with allergies and other health conditions that require a special diet.” Such near-monopolistic control can lead to perilous conditions if the supply chain is impacted, as is what occurred with Abbott’s infected plant in February 2022.
The result is chaos: Infants go hungry, store shelves are pillaged, and aggrieved parents drive hundreds of miles to find and stockpile enough formula to feed their hungry and growing babies.
Regarding the issue, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf has discussed the possibility of restructuring the industry to make it less reliant on any single baby-formula production plant. Califf said:
"The question of whether we need more diversity in terms of the overall supply is one that, I think, will be much discussed and needs to be considered in light of the levers that we have to make that happen.”
The way that the U.S. Department of Agriculture structures its Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program means companies like Abbott have a virtual monopoly on infant formula in certain states.
Through its WIC program, the federal government buys more than half of all powdered formulas on the market and makes them available to lower-income families at a reduced price.
Despite Formula Shortage, Health Risks Can Not Be Ignored
Abbott infant formula impacted by bacterial infections have allegedly caused severe illnesses in several babies across the United States. Both salmonella and Cronobacter sakazakii can turn deadly. Importantly, the CDC notes both Cronobacter and salmonella as presenting serious or potentially fatal health risks to infants.
For these reasons, the parents of infants impacted by such illnesses have filed lawsuits.
Common symptoms of Cronobacter include:
- Poor feeding
- Very low energy
Additionally, the CDC warns: Babies with meningitis may develop serious and sometimes lifelong problems in their brains. Roughly 4 of every 10 babies with meningitis from Cronobacter die.
Salmonella infections in babies can lead to gastroenteritis — a condition marked by inflammation in the digestive system.
Symptoms of salmonella may include:
- Abdominal cramps or tenderness
Severe salmonella infections can lead to salmonellosis, which can be accompanied by a very high fever, rashes, and blood in the infant’s urine or stool. In severe cases, salmonellosis can be fatal.
The FDA’s investigation of the Abbott plant where the formula was manufactured identified several positive results for Cronobacter sakazakii. Despite the FDA’s findings, Abbott claims there is no link between its infant formulas and the illnesses experienced by infants.
In mid-May 2022, the U.S. government and Abbott struck a deal that would allow the firm to reopen its Sturgis plant and continue to manufacture infant powdered formula. Given its recent track record of bacterial infection, however, the re-opened plant must meet strict new safety protocols.
According to the FDA, it will be another 6-8 weeks until the Sturgis plant is running at full capacity once again.
Running Short on Powdered Baby Formula?
If you’re out of or running low on the powdered infant formula your baby uses, the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) — a trusted resource for all issues concerning baby and children health — recommends first getting in touch with your pediatrician. Often, pediatricians have access to samples or keep baby formula in stock for shortages or crises.
If that fails, the AAP recommends:
- Looking for your infant’s formula at smaller pharmacies and drug stores, as these stores may still have supply when supermarkets and bigger stores are out of stock.
- Buying baby formula online from well-regarded supermarkets, pharmacies, and wholesalers until supply shortages ease up.
- Checking parental groups on social media, as many parents who find themselves in similar situations may have advice or tips on where to find formulas in your area.
In addition, while it can be tempting for parents and caregivers to stockpile as much baby formula as possible given the present shortage, the AAP recommends buying only a 2-week supply, as other parents also need to purchase formula for their infants.
Above all, while the infant formula shortage continues, it’s absolutely crucial that parents and caretakers avoid feeding their infants recalled baby formula under any circumstances.
To find out if your formula you have was included in Abbott’s recall, locate the product lot number next to the “Use By'' date on the bottom of the container and enter it on Abbott’s website.