The widespread shortage of infant formula due to the government’s closure of the Abbott Nutrition factory in Sturgis is creating dangerous situations for parents and pediatricians caring for their babies.
The plant has been closed since mid-February after a US Food and Drug Administration investigation found serious food safety violations. The investigation was launched after four infants contracted Cronobacter sakazakii, a rare and deadly bacterial infection, after consuming formula made at the Sturgis plant which led to the recall of some of its formulas. Abbott maintains that his factory is not the likely source of the bacteria.
As the FDA works to resolve the issues and reopen the plant, the shortage continues to affect the most vulnerable, local pediatricians told Crain’s.
The greatest impact is on infants requiring specialized formulas containing specific amino acids that act as a major source, if not the only source, of nutrition for children with metabolic disorders. These disorders impact a person’s ability to break down protein, thereby eliminating the ability to consume traditional foods, including breast milk.
These specialized formulas are produced in factories like Abbott and sold to consumers through pharmacies.
“For children with special needs in preparation, they will die if they don’t get the right formula,” said Uzma Shah, the new president of pediatrics at Henry Ford Medical Group, who most recently served in the leadership role in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. “Pharmacy stocks are about half of what they should be and right now manufacturers can’t keep up with demand, which is creating a real problem for these babies.”
Abbott has ramped up production at its Ohio plant, which makes mostly standard formulas, and is working to ship products from its plant, which makes specialty products like those at its Sturgis plant from production in Ireland.
However, the United States has a 17.5% duty on imported formulas, so these shipments are unlikely to be profitable for the company.
Parents are looking for workarounds for products, including ordering from foreign suppliers in Europe.
But Jule MacPherson, a pediatrician at Kidology Pediatrics in Troy, warns of the potential dangers of imports.
“I’ve had patients who received formula from Europe, but that’s not regulated by the FDA,” MacPherson said. “I urge them to proceed with caution. Nutrients are usually a bit different and may not meet their needs and there are concerns about long distance shipping. There is no guarantee that the formula remains at an appropriate temperature. I advise parents against using overseas formulas.”
There have also been examples of parents cutting the formula with water to make it last longer, but that’s extremely dangerous, Shah said. Formulas are mixed to an infant’s exact needs and adding water can lead to serious health risks, most commonly seizures.
Regular formulas, sold on grocery store shelves, are also in short supply due to the shutdown, but there are alternative options, the two pediatricians said.
After six months of age, some babies can safely transition to cow’s milk temporarily, Shah said. People over the age of six months can also generally tolerate infant formula in some cases, if it is available.
Todd Robinson, director of marketing for Busch’s Fresh Food Market, which has 16 stores in southeast Michigan, said shelves remain sparse for formulas, but that’s been a constant during the pandemic since last year. .
“We’re down significantly, but our (formula) sales are basically the same as 2021,” Robinson said. “We keep ordering but the supply chain just doesn’t have the product.”
Robinson said that while stores no longer carry popular formula brands, such as Abbott’s Similac, many private label formulas remain in stock. MacPherson said private labels, such as Meijer and others, offer a valid alternative for parents.
Meanwhile, Abbott said on Thursday it hopes to reopen its Sturgis plant within the next two weeks, which should start easing shortages in two months.