Abbott CEO Apologizes For Formula Shortage As First Overseas Shipment Arrives: NPR

Empty baby food shelves at a Massachusetts supermarket on Friday.

Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

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Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

Empty baby food shelves at a Massachusetts supermarket on Friday.

Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

The CEO of Abbott, the company whose voluntary recall of several top-selling baby food brands has led to a nationwide shortage of formulas, has apologized for the crisis as the first overseas shipment of President Biden-approved formulas arrived in the US on Sunday.

“We’re sorry to every family we’ve lost since our voluntary recall has exacerbated the baby food shortage in our country,” CEO Robert Ford wrote in an op-ed published Saturday in the Washington Post.

The nationwide shortage stems from supply chain disruptions and a market characterized by limited competition, exclusive contracts and few major suppliers.

But things took off in February when Abbott, the nation’s largest baby food manufacturer, voluntarily closed a major Michigan plant after four children became ill with bacterial infections.

“We believe that our voluntary recall was the right thing to do. We will not take any risks when it comes to children’s health,” Ford wrote.

In the months since the recall, parents have reported empty shelves and limits on purchases in places where formula is in stock.

Children in Tennessee, Georgia, Wisconsin and other states have reportedly been hospitalized as a result of formula shortages. Some of the products affected by the deficiency are hypoallergenic formulas designed for children with milk allergies or other problems digesting food normally.

Abbott will establish a $5 million fund to help those families with medical costs and living expenses until the supply crisis is resolved, Ford announced.

Last week, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to boost baby formula production and authorized the Department of Defense to help fly in bottled formula from abroad. The first of those shipments — 70,000 pounds of Nestle hypoallergenic formulas — arrived in Indianapolis Sunday morning, the White House said.

Abbott’s Michigan plant will reopen the first week of June. The company reached an agreement with the Food and Drug Administration last week to reopen the shuttered factory.

Production of Elecare and other hypoallergenic formulas will be prioritized, Ford said. “By the end of June, we will be delivering more formulas to Americans than we had in January before the recall,” he said.

Why is there a shortage?

After four babies became ill with bacterial infections after consuming Abbott products made at a plant in Michigan, Abbott temporarily closed the facility and issued a voluntary recall for products made there.

But that factory — located in Sturgis, Michigan — is the largest formula milk factory in the US and reportedly supplied about 20% of the country’s baby food.

The shutdown, along with pandemic-related supply chain disruptions that have already created a bottleneck on baby food, has turned into a full-blown crisis, in part because of quirks about the US baby food market.

The vast majority of formulas in the US are produced by just four companies, including Abbott. Due to high tariffs and FDA regulations, little is imported from other countries.

Much of the country’s baby food is sold through WIC, the government program that provides subsidized groceries to low-income families. States providing the benefit sign exclusive contracts with formula manufacturers. Abbott has that exclusive contract in about two-thirds of the states, and their closing has complicated purchases for families in those places.

As a result, many families struggle to find baby food on supermarket shelves. According to Datasembly, a food industry data company, the nationwide out-of-stock rate was 43% for the week ending May 8. Shortages were worst in San Antonio, Minneapolis and Des Moines, the company said.

“I want to reassure all Americans that we at the FDA are very concerned about this and that we are doing everything we can and working 24/7 to make things right,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf in an interview this week with NPR.

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