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.
Pennsylvania parents are having a harder time finding formula than most of the United States. According to Datasembly, nearly 47 percent of baby formula is out of stock in the state, compared to the U.S. average of 43 percent. Parents have been forced to work together to find available baby formula, and Facebook groups have formed around the state to help parents find the formula they need. Several groups in Philadelphia post photos of formula aisles at grocery stores along with the day and time they were there. One organization has been setting up breast milk donation boxes and delivering supplies to the homes of families in need. Hopefully new actions from the Biden administration will mean Pennsylvanians aren’t forced into such extreme options.
Pennsylvania’s senators are trying to stop something like this from happening again. Senator Casey has met with parents in Pennsylvania to discuss the problems they are facing and plans to resolve them. Sen. Casey also signed a letter in late February demanding that Abbott Nutrition provide all relevant information on contamination of baby formula made in the Sturgis plant from 2017 to present. He hopes to find out when Abbott Nutrition first learned about the alleged contamination of their product, and why it took them more than four months to make a public response.