Michigan baby formula plant closure a dangerous supply chain ripple

The widespread infant formula shortage due to the government shutdown of the Abbott Nutrition plant in Sturgis is creating dangerous situations for parents and the pediatricians tending to their babies.

The plant has been shut down since mid-February after a U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigation discovered 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 that lead to recalls of some of its formulas. Abbott maintains its plant is not the likely source of the bacteria.

While the FDA works to address the issues and reopen the plant, the shortage continues to impact the most vulnerable, local pediatricians told Crain’s.

The biggest impact is on infants requiring specialized formulas with specific amino acids that act as a major source, if not the sole source, of nutrition for children with metabolic disorders. These disorders impact a person’s ability to break down proteins, effectively eliminating the ability to consume traditional foods, including breast milk.

These specialized formulas are produced at plants like Abbott and sold to consumers via pharmacies.

“For children with special formula needs, they will die if they don’t get the right formula,” said Uzma Shah, the new chair of pediatrics at the Henry Ford Medical Group, who most recently served in pediatrics leadership 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, creating a real problem for these babies.”

Abbott has boosted production out of its Ohio plant, which predominantly makes standard formula, and is working to ship product from its plant that makes specialty products like those of its Sturgis plant from production in Ireland.

However, the U.S. has a 17.5 percent tariff on imported formula, so those shipments will likely not be profitable for the company.

Parents are seeking workarounds for the products, including ordering from overseas vendors in Europe.

But Jule MacPherson, a pediatrician at Kidology Pediatrics in Troy, warns of potential dangers in imports.

“I have had patients who’ve gotten formula from Europe, but it’s not FDA regulated,” MacPherson said. “I urge them to proceed with caution. The nutrients are usually a little different and might not meet their needs and there are concerns with shipping long distances. There is no guarantee that the formula stayed at an appropriate temperature. I discourage parents from 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 exact infant needs and adding water can cause serious health risks, most commonly seizures.

Regular formulas, sold on grocer shelves, are also in short supply due to the closure, but there are alternative options, both pediatricians said.

After six months of age, some babies can safely transfer temporarily to cow’s milk, Shah said. Those older than six months can also generally tolerate infant formulas in some cases, if available.

Todd Robinson, director of marketing for Busch’s Fresh Food Market, which has 16 stores across Southeast Michigan, said shelves remain sparse for formula but that has been a constant during the pandemic since last year.

“We’re down considerably, 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 while the stores are out of popular formula brands, such as Abbott’s Similac, many private branded formulas remain in stock. MacPherson said private label brands, such as Meijer and others, offer a worthy alternative for parents.

Meanwhile, Abbott announced Thursday it hoped to reopen its Sturgis plant in the next two weeks, which should start to alleviate shortages in two months.

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