Abbott labs says formula production could resume in two weeks

The Chatham Food Lion on Monday morning had baby formula on its shelves, although supplies were not plentiful. Many places around the country – including a Danville Food Lion on Sunday – have experienced empty baby formula shelves.

The shelves that normally hold baby formula were empty Sunday at a Danville Food Lion, an indication that the ongoing nationwide shortage of milk formula continues. The Food Lion in Chatham on Monday had a few cans of Similac, but supply was definitely down.

The shortage is partially attributed to a voluntary recall by Abbott Laboratories, which produces several lines of baby formula, including Similac. Abbott on Monday entered into a consent decree with the FDA to restart production at its Sturgis, Michigan plant where the recall occurred.

Once FDA issues an approval, Abbott could restart production at the Sturgis plant within two weeks. Abbott stated it would take six to eight weeks before the product is available on store shelves.

Abbott Laboratories has a facility in Altavista, but a company spokesperson would not confirm or deny that baby formula is made there, citing proprietary concerns.

“We produce a variety of nutrition products at our plant in Altavista,” said Abbott spokesperson Brandi Martin, but she did not provide further information on what products the company does manufacture at the plant.

Chatham resident Tommie-Jo Lewis has eight-month old twins and is relieved to hear that production will ramp up again. Lewis doesn't use Similac, and she can generally find the brand she uses in Chatham – Gerber Good Start GentlePro – but she has experienced wide price changes. Two weeks ago, the price went from $36 a can to $45 a can within a few days, she reported.

"Literally my mouth dropped," she said, adding that she has friends whose babies are on special formulas, and they can't find what they need.

"It's really scary because you don't know," she remarked. Lewis is heartened by mothers seemingly pulling together on Facebook — either alerting each other where formula can be found or offering to pick up cans for others when they do find it.

Mostly, Lewis just hopes she can continue to find the two cans a week that she needs for her twins.

"It's sad for the babies," she said.

In February, Abbott issued a voluntary recall of baby formula from its Sturgis plant due to four complaints of Cronobacter sakazakii — a common environmental bacteria — in infants who consumed infant formulas produced in this plant. Two infants became sick and two died, according to an Abbott spokesperson.

The Centers for Disease Control concluded its investigation with no findings of a link between Abbott formula and infant illnesses, according to a statement released by Abbott.

Abbott will continue to import formula from an FDA-registered facility in Ireland to help alleviate near-term supply shortages, according to the company.

Abbott produces the Similac brand and is one of the largest producers of milk formula in the country, according to a statement issued by The White House.

The Sturgis plant is also a key supplier of specialty formula, according to the White House statement.

Martin indicated how production would restart.

“We would begin production of EleCare, Alimentum and metabolic formulas first and then begin production of Similac and other formulas. From the time we restart the site, it will take six to eight weeks before product is available on shelves,” explained Martin.

"We understand the situation is urgent – getting Sturgis up and running will help alleviate this shortage,” according to a company spokesperson.

In addition to ramping up production of formula from other producers, President Joe Biden has announced additional steps to address the situation, such as reducing red tape for the USDA's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC); calling on the Federal Trade Commission and Attorney General to crack down on price gouging or unfair market practices; and increasing supply through increased imports.

About half of infant formula nationwide is purchased by participants using WIC benefits, according to the White House statement.

Abbott issued a statement concerning the cases of cornolbacter, the bacteria that led to the voluntary recall. Abbott stated that after a review of available data, there is no evidence linking its formulas to infant illnesses. Abbott provided the following conclusions:

•Abbott conducts microbiological testing on products prior to distribution, and no Abbott formula distributed to consumers tested positive for Cronobacter sakazakii or Salmonella.

•All finished product testing by Abbott and the FDA during the inspection of the facility came back negative for Cronobacter and/or Salmonella. No Salmonella was found at the Sturgis facility.

•The Cronobacter sakazakii that was found in environmental testing during the investigation was in non-product contact areas of the facility and has not been linked to any known infant illness. Specifically:

•Genetic sequencing on the two available samples from ill infants did not match strains of Cronobacter in our plant. Samples from ill infants did not match each other, meaning there was no connection between the two cases.

•In all four cases, the state, FDA, and/or CDC tested samples of the Abbott formula that was used by the child. In all four cases, all unopened containers tested negative.

•Open containers from the homes of the infants were also tested in three of the four cases; two of the three tested negative. The one positive was from an open container from the home of the infant, and it tested positive for two different strains of Cronobacter sakazakii, one of which matched the strain that caused the infant’s infection, and the other matched a strain found on a bottle of distilled water in the home used to mix the formula. Again, neither strain matched strains found in our plant.

•The infants consumed four different types of our formula made over the course of nearly a year, and the illnesses took place over several months in three different states.