About two months after some brands of powdered baby formula were recalled due to reports of illness and two deaths, the shortage has worsened.
In mid-February, Abbott Nutrition, a medical device company that manufactures Similac infant formulas as well as PediaSure, Pedialyte and other products, initiated a voluntary recall of potentially affected formulas manufactured in its Sturgis, Michigan, facility after it was linked to bacterial infections, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Since then, baby and infant formula has continued to be in low supply. As people struggle through the shortage, one member of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation is stepping in.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, arguing there were reports of illness related to Abbott Nutrition infant formula five months before the recall, officials said Monday in a news release. The letter was also signed by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
“Parents, caregivers and the greater public rely upon the FDA to ensure infant formula on the shelves in our grocery stores and food pantries is safe to consume and supports healthy growth,” the senators said in the letter. “It is unacceptable that FDA was made aware of complaints and positive cases related to the Abbott Nutrition facility months before Abbott finally issued its voluntary recall of potentially contaminated infant formula, yet failed to alert the public, immediately initiate an inspection or demand Abbott issue an immediate recall of these infant formula products.”
Why is there a baby formula shortage?
Pandemic-related shortages have affected baby formula over the past two years, but the February recall made the shortage worse.
About 30% of formula was out of stock as of mid-March in 24 states across the U.S., according to market research firm Datasembly. Only between 2% and 8% of baby formula products were out of stock the first seven months of 2021.
What products were recalled?
The FDA is advising consumers not to use Similac, Alimentum or EleCare powdered infant formulas if the first two digits of the code are 22 through 37; and the code on the container contains K8, SH or Z2; and the expiration date is 4-1-2022 (APR 2022) or later.
Find more details on the recall here.
Why were they recalled?
There were four consumer complaints related to Cronobacter sakazakii or Salmonella newport, both bacterial infections, in infants who had consumed powder infant formula manufactured in the facility, according to the FDA. Agents found the evidence of the former in the plant’s non-product contact areas.
Cronobacter sakazakii can cause fever, poor feeding, excessive crying or low energy as well as other serious symptoms. So far, two deaths have been linked to powdered baby formula since September.
Last month, federal safety inspectors said Abbott failed to maintain sanitary conditions and procedures at the Michigan manufacturing plant, according to an Associated Press report.
Who else is affected?
Although parents and caregivers may see the lack of baby formula at grocery stores, they are not the only ones feeling the effects of the shortage.
Hospital systems also use formula, and many across the country have voiced their concerns over the shortages. However, Lehigh Valley Health Network spokesperson Brian Downs said the shortage isn’t affecting the network.
“There are difficulties getting certain products on occasion, but overall, we have been able to get what we need with minimal substitution, sometimes of another brand,” he said.
About 30 cans of Similac formula were donated in recent months, said Jenae Holtzhafer, the Emmaus nonprofit’s founder and executive director. But the cans had to be pulled because they were part of the February recall.
“We had to take it off the shelves, which definitely is a hit until we can get it replaced,” she said. “So far, we are still able to serve our families as needs arise, but we will feel much better once we get that stock replenished.”
The foster closet provides clothes, shoes, hygiene products and other essentials to help ease the costs to foster families around the region.
Foster families have been visiting the organization in “absolute desperation” looking for certain types of formula, Holtzhafer said, adding they’ve limited distribution to one can per family per visit.
“We have also put a call out to the community via social media if we are able to find the needed formula on Amazon,” she said. “It’s sometimes available there if it’s not in the stores locally. However, it often comes with an additional cost.”
Have purchase limits been put in place?
At least one retailer has put limits on the amount of formula that can be purchased at one time.
Walgreens shoppers are limited to three infant and toddler formulas per transaction to help improve inventory, a company spokesperson confirmed Monday.
“Due to increased demand and various supplier challenges, infant and toddler formulas are seeing constraint across the country,” she said. ” … We continue to work diligently with our supplier partners to best meet customer demands.”
It does not appear that any other major retailer has placed purchase limits on formula.
What can parents and caregivers do?
Officials at the Infant Nutrition Council of America have been reassuring parents and caregivers that there is enough infant formula available to meet their needs.
“Manufacturers have increased production, and are working with retailers and government agencies to help ensure availability and continued access to infant formula,” according to the organization’s website. “Parents and caregivers should communicate with their infant’s pediatrician if they have questions about infant feeding methods, especially if they are considering a major change in their infant’s nutrition routine.”
The council cautioned residents against stockpiling formula and buying it from irreputable retailers.
What else did Casey and Brown’s letter say?
In the letter, Casey and Brown asked why the FDA did not inspect Abbott Nutrition’s Sturgis facility in 2020.
“How has the COVID-19 pandemic and public health emergency impacted the FDA’s ability to oversee and ensure the safety of infant formula?,” they asked. “Did you make a remote records request? Would any authorities have enabled more effective FDA oversight and facilitated the FDA’s ability to meet its obligations?”
Read the full letter here.
Morning Call reporter Molly Bilinski can be reached at [email protected]