US baby food manufacturer Abbott Nutrition says its manufacturing facility – closed for months due to contamination – has reopened, taking a step toward alleviating a nationwide shortage that leaves parents scrambling for supplies.
Most important points:
- Two babies died after consuming contaminated factory-produced formula
- US officials say it could take about two months for formula supply to return to normal levels
- About three quarters of baby products were out of stock in the US at the end of May
The February shutdown of the largest formula factory in the US led to delivery problems that have forced some parents to source formulas from food banks, friends and doctors’ offices.
Abbott said it would initially prioritize manufacturing its special EleCare formulas for infants with severe food allergies and digestive problems who had few other feeding options.
The company said it would take about three weeks for the new formula to reach consumers from the factory.
“We will ramp up production as soon as possible while meeting all requirements,” Abbott said in a statement.
In response to the supply shortage, the administration of US President Joe Biden has relaxed import rules for foreign manufacturers, flown formulas from Europe and invoked emergency federal regulations to prioritize US production.
Robert Califf, commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), recently said it could take about two months for formula supply in the country to return to normal levels.
The FDA has waived many of its regulatory requirements to accept more formulas from the UK, Australia and other countries.
The government ordered about 1.25 million cans of formula from Sydney-based manufacturer Bubs Australia to help alleviate the shortages.
Deficiency Seriously Affects Babies With Allergies, Digestive Problems
Abbott closed the plant in Sturgis, Michigan, in February after the FDA began investigating four bacterial infections in infants who consumed powdered formulas of the plant.
Two of the babies died.
The company continues to state that its products have not been directly linked to the infections, which involved several strains of bacteria.
FDA inspectors eventually uncovered a myriad of violations at the plant, including bacterial contamination, a leaking roof, lax safety protocols and a lack of adequate hand washing among staff.
The FDA has come under intense scrutiny as it took months to close the plant and then negotiate its reopening.
Bureau leaders recently told Congress they needed to sign a legally binding deal with Abbott to ensure all issues were resolved.
Abbott’s February recall of several leading brands, including Similac, squeezed inventories that were already under pressure from supply chain disruptions and stockpiling during the COVID-19 shutdown.
About 73 percent of baby products in the US sold out as of May 22, according to data agency Datasembly.
The shortage was greatest for children with allergies, digestive problems and metabolic disorders, who rely on special formulas.
The Abbott plant is the sole source of many of those products, feeding about 5,000 babies, according to US officials.
Abbott is one of only four companies that manufacture about 90 percent of its formula in the US.
And according to 2020 government data, less than half of U.S. babies were exclusively breastfed for the first three months.
The company’s recalls and closure set off a cascade of effects: Retailers have limited customer purchases to save inventory, and parents have been told to switch brands to whatever formula is in stock.
US manufacturers, including Reckitt and Gerber, have also ramped up production, running factories 24/7 and sourcing more formulas from alternative facilities.
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