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Could This Be the End of the Baby Formula Shortage?

June 7, 2022

Over the weekend, officials at Abbott Nutrition, the company at the heart of the national baby formula shortage, announced that the manufacturing site has restarted production. Since February, baby formula shelves in grocery stores across the country have been empty, leaving parents scrambling. Multiple supermarkets have had to put limits on how many cans of baby formula one can purchase.

During the last week of May, 74% of formula products were out of stock at some point according to market research company Datasembly. 

“The reality that we live in a country where baby formula is scarce is very frightening to me,” said Sylvia B. Johnson, the executive director of Houston Pregnancy Health Center. “I would have never imagined this to be the America that I grew up in.”

In February, Abbott voluntarily recalled three types of infant formula after reports of four babies becoming sick with bacterial infections from consuming the milk. The infants were infected with Cronobacter sakazakii, a life-threatening bacterium that can lead to inflammation of the membranes that protect the spine and brain. Although Abbott initially said there was no “conclusive evidence” for the company’s formulas causing the illness, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proceeded with investigations.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf reported that Abbott manufacturing plant in Sturgis, Michigan was in “egregiously unsanitary” conditions. He shared that the bacterium was able to enter the plant and persist because the factory not only had a leaking roof and water pooling on the floor, but cracks were also discovered in the production equipment.

Once the Sturgis plant was closed, the FDA reached out to other manufacturers to ramp up production.

In an interview with CBS News, former FDA Associate Commissioner Peter Pitts said, “The good news is that those other companies made up about 30% of the Abbott shortfall but not nearly enough. But the bigger issue is, once the plant was closed, not enough was done to let pediatricians and parents know what was happening so they could be prepared.” 

He emphasized that the federal government and FDA had missed an opportunity to be “honest and transparent” with the public.

Amidst this crisis, Johnson and her colleagues at Houston Pregnancy Health Center have been educating women with unplanned pregnancies on alternatives to baby formula.

“The women that we are seeing today who are thinking about having an abortion are now saying, ‘Well, I have to have an abortion. There’s no formula for the babies anymore,’” Johnson explained.

When there was a surplus of baby formula, mothers often chose brands based on whatever the hospital gave them when they were discharged. Now, Johnson is encouraging mothers to breastfeed. She also noticed that mothers are becoming more invested by “seriously searching for alternatives.”

“They’re reading the nutrition labels. They’re consulting with their pediatrician on the age [when] they can start their babies on whole milk or almond milk.”

Abbott Nutrition recently signed a consent decree with the government committing to a series of new safeguards such as hiring a qualified expert to oversee improvements at the Sturgis plant and notifying the FDA if any contamination is found. 

The plant tested negative for Cronobacter, and Abbott officials stated that “more and more infant formula is either on the way to or already on store shelves.” 

In response to this news, Johnson said, “I am hoping that the increased production will ease the pain, but I must educate our moms on alternatives. If this ever happens again, we should not be caught by surprise like we were this time.”

In southern states like Texas, Datasembly reported in May that 90% of infant formula was out-of-stock.

Johnson is committed to supporting mothers and making sure “every baby bottle is full.” 

“We want to make sure that babies are fed. Yes, we want to make sure that babies live. We want to make sure that babies are born. And we want to make sure that they are cared for.”

Deborah Laker serves as a staff writer at The Washington Stand.