Jeff Fuentes Gleghorn
Last week the Biden administration’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that a closed Abbott baby formula factory in Sturgis, Michigan would reopen soon. Abbott representatives say that formula from that factory is expected to be on store shelves in six to eight weeks. In order to bridge that gap, President Biden launched “Operation Fly Formula”, which allowed military flights to bring baby formula from Europe into the United States. The first shipment arrived on May 22, bringing 39 tons of hypoallergenic formula to Indianapolis – around one third of the total formula that President Biden is importing. The President said that the rest of the formula would be flown into Washington Dulles International Airport before being brought to a Nestle distribution center in Pennsylvania.
President Biden also enacted the Defense Production Act (DPA) to give baby formula manufacturers the raw materials they need for production. The DPA allows baby formula companies to add legal language requiring their suppliers to fulfill their contracts first, effectively placing formula companies at the top of the list for shipments of materials. Once the Abbott factory reopens, the United States should be producing as much formula as it was before the pandemic started.
The baby formula shortage started in July of last year due to supply chain issues, but became a nationwide crisis after an Abbott Nutrition baby formula factory closed in Sturgis, Michigan. The closure came after two infants died and two more became sick with a rare bacterial infection believed to have come from their formula. A recall was issued for formula made in the Sturgis facility, and then expanded to include hypoallergenic baby formula when an infant became sick after consuming hypoallergenic formula from the factory. The Abbott facility produces around 20 percent of all baby formula in the United States.
A whistleblower contacted the FDA with concerns about the Sturgis factory in October of last year, shortly after the first child became sick. The former employee alleged that the Abbott Nutrition management was intentionally violating health and safety regulations, and had hidden contamination events from the FDA in the past. The government did not interview the whistleblower until December, two months later, and did not conduct a more thorough investigation of the factory until January. The January investigation found the bacteria related to the infant hospitalizations, though further study showed that they were not the same strain. It also flagged major problems with the factory building and equipment, including a severely damaged milk dryer and pools of standing water on the floor, both of which are known to cause contamination of baby formula. The discovery of such significant issues came only four months after a routine FDA inspection concluded that there were no major problems, which raises questions about how the earlier inspector could have missed them.
The Children’s Wisconsin hospital is reporting that more babies than normal are being brought in for malnutrition because of the formula shortage. The hospital says that they are seeing parents make the attempt to use homemade baby formula from online recipes, which doesn’t provide the proper nutrition for infant growth. Children’s Wisconsin is also warning against watering down baby formula, as that can lead to serious health conditions. Jennifer Crouse, the Clinical Nutrition Manager at Children’s Wisconsin, said “I know parents are trying to do their best. So I don’t blame anybody who has tried a creative solution,” adding that “we’re just trying to help families weigh the risks” of diet changes for infants.
Children’s Wisconsin is encouraging parents to talk to their pediatrician about formula alternatives instead of trying to figure things out on their own. Parents can also try reaching out to the Mother’s Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes, an organization that has been helping to distribute breast milk to families that need it since 2005.