Baby Formula Plant That Shut Down and Fueled Crisis Restarts Production

Abbott Nutrition, a company that fueled a national shortage of baby formula when it shut down a leading production plant in February because of contamination concerns, said Saturday that its site has restarted producing EleCare and other formulas.

The restarting of the plant in Sturgis, Mich., Which resulted in an agreement with the Federal Food and Drug Administration, was renewed in the hope that shortening the formula that sent stressed parents would ease scrambling.

Out-of-stock rates had soared to about 74 percent at stores across the country as of the week ending May 28, according to Datasembly, which tracks retail data. The crisis, which had been building for months and stems from pandemic supply issues, was worsened by the plant’s closure.

In a statement, Abbott said EleCare would release consumers around June 20 and that it was “working hard” to restart production of Similac and other formulas.

“We understand the urgent need for formula and our top priority is getting high-quality, safe formulas in the hands of families across America,” the company said. “We will ramp production as quickly as we can while meeting all requirements.”

In February, Abbott announced it was voluntarily recalling three types of infant formula after four babies who were fed formula manufactured at the Sturgis plant became sick with bacterial infections.

The FDA has received three consumer complaints about Cronobacter sakazakii, a bacterium that can cause severe, life-threatening infections or inflammation of the membranes that protect the brain and spine. Abbott said there was no “conclusive evidence” link to the company’s formulas for the illnesses.

Dr. Robert M. Califf, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told a House panel last month that the Sturgis plant had a leaking roof, water pooling on the floor and cracks in production equipment that allowed bacteria to get in and persist.

He detailed “egregiously unsanitary” conditions but he also acknowledged that his agency was very slow in addressing problems at the plant.

In a statement on Saturday, the FDA said it had investigators at the Sturgis plant for several days monitoring flooring, roofing and equipment improvements to the facility. Abbott reported that the facility tested negative for Cronobacter, the agency said.

A consent decree the company signed with the government provides a series of new safeguards, including hiring a qualified expert to oversee improvements at the plant and notifying the FDA if it finds any contamination.

The agency on Saturday said the steps it has taken, and the restarting of the Sturgis plant, “will mean more and more infant formulas are either on the way or already moving store shelves.”

The plant shutdown exacerbated an existing supply crisis, as parents rushed to stock up on formulas, sometimes driving for hours, as networks formed on social media to help connect them with dwindling supplies.

With store shelves bare in some communities, some parents have been so desperate that they have fed their infants with powdered oatmeal cereal and fruit juice, even though pediatricians recommend formula or breast milk as the primary source of nutrition from a baby’s first birthday.

In the short term, imports from Europe and elsewhere announced by the White House are expected to play a greater role in restarting the Sturgis plant, Steven A. Abrams, a professor of pediatrics at the Dell Medical School at the University. Texas at Austin, said on Saturday.

The Abbott plant’s reopening will be a relief to parents’ severely allergic babies because EleCare is geared toward them, Dr. Abrams said.

“What most families are facing at the grocery store, the importing of the formulas that are going to occur from British, Australian and Mexican sources, will have a much bigger impact,” he said.

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