The plant at the heart of the formula shortage has restarted production — but restocking shelves will take time
Abbott Nutrition will first produce specialty products like EleCare for babies and toddlers with allergies.
The manufacturing plant at the center of the baby formula shortage is back in business. Abbott Nutrition restarted the production of infant formula at its Sturgis, Michigan, plant over the weekend.
But it’s likely to take some time for the baby formula it produces to reach store shelves — and not all products are yet being produced, including Abbott’s popular Similac formula.
Abbott Nutrition said it would start immediately producing EleCare and other specialty and metabolic formulas, designed for children who are allergic to cow milk proteins or have other allergies. Those formulas will be released to consumers around June 20. The company statement also said it is “working hard to fulfill the steps necessary to restart production of Similac and other formulas and will do so as soon as we can.”
But Steven A. Abrams, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas at Austin medical school, told The New York Times, that the steps taken by the White House to bring in formula from elsewhere, as well as other steps like using the Defense Production Act to help other formula manufacturers get the raw materials they need and the increased production from those other companies will do more in the short-term to ease the crisis.
“What most families are facing at the grocery store, the importing of the formulas that’s going to occur from British, Australian and Mexican sources, will have a lot bigger impact,” he said.
Abbott has promised to speed its efforts to stock store shelves. In a statement released Saturday, the company said, “We understand the urgent need for formula and our top priority is getting high-quality safe formula into the hands of families across America. We will ramp production as quickly as we can while meeting all requirements.”
In a statement to NPR, the Food and Drug Administration said it has been working “around the clock” to ease the supply shortages. The agency said it expects that the Sturgis plant’s restart “will mean more and more infant formula is either on the way to or already on store shelves moving forward.”
The making of a crisis
Baby formula became hard to find earlier this year because of several issues. It started with pandemic supply chain problems and some stockpiling by families. Then four infants became sick and two died. Since all the infants had been fed formula made at the Sturgis plant, Abbott recalled its formula voluntarily. None of its products later proved to have the bacteria that infected the children.
But a plant inspection did find cronobacter sakazakii bacteria within the facility, though not in the produced formula itself. The plant was shuttered for cleaning and repairs as a result. According to FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert D. Califf’s testimony to a House committee looking into the shortage, the plant had sanitation issues, including a leaking roof, water puddles on the floor and damaged equipment bacteria could breach.
WWMT reported that Abbott Nutrition products make up 40% of the market and the Sturgis plant is the largest formula factory in the United States.
Over the weekend, the FDA said investigators watched as improvements were made. And Abbott reported tests no longer found cronobacter.
The reopening of the plant was possible because Abbott Nutrition and the FDA entered into a consent decree outlining steps that would be needed for safe operation.
Not much on store shelves
Still, anxious parents may have to keep hunting for baby formula for a while.
Bloomberg reported that the out-of-stock rate nationally at the end of May was 74%, based on data from 130,000 stores that was gathered and analyzed by Datasembly. Ten states — Georgia, Arizona, Mississippi, California, Nevada, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Florida and Washington had out-of-stock rates of at least 90%. Georgia was hardest hit at 94%. Lots of other states weren’t far beyond. Utah, for example, had an 89% out-of-stock rate.
The states with the best supply were Colorado, with a 44% out-of-stock rate, Wisconsin at 51% and Indiana at 46.5.%.