HomeHealth Care NewsConcern Grows that Baby Formula Shortage Could Harm Babies

Concern Grows that Baby Formula Shortage Could Harm Babies

Families encountering a baby formula shortage are scrambling to buy adequate baby formula to feed their infants and toddlers.

Media reports are circulating throughout the nation of parents spending hours online or going store to store to find enough formula to get them through the next few days. If retailers have been able to stock their shelves, they are restricting customers to how much they can buy.

The shortage stems from a recall on February 17 of several popular brands when two babies died and four got sick after ingesting powder formulas linked to a Michigan manufacturing facility operated by Abbott Nutrition, in Sturgis Michigan. The recall involved powdered formulas under the brands, Similac, Alimentum, and EleCare.

Abbott denies its product was the cause of the deaths and illnesses. On May 13, Abbott tweeted:  “…a comprehensive investigation by Abbott, FDA and CDC found no evidence that our formulas caused infant illnesses.”

The infants were infected by Cronobacter, a rare bacterium that can be deadly to infants.

Health Agencies Absent

According to Politico, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  were notified of possible problems at the plant as far back as September after being alerted by health officials in Minnesota about the death of an infant.

In October, a whistleblower sent a 34-page document to health officials describing how the Abbott facility falsified records and failed to test formulas and keep the facility clean.

An opinion article in the New York Post on May 10 reports the last time the FDA conducted an inspection at the plant was in September 2019.

“The FDA has essentially been silent on what it failed to do, but more importantly, what it plans to do to prevent the next Cronobacter outbreak,” wrote William D. Marler, a lawyer who specializes in food-borne illnesses. “Instead, the FDA facing formula shortages abdicates its responsibility to protect the public by letting parents know they are on their own with this thin gruel of a warning: “Those seeking access [to the formula] should consult with their healthcare provider in considering whether the benefit of consuming such product outweighs the potential risk of bacterial infection in the user’s particular circumstances.”

Impact on Baby

Pediatrician Roberta Bobal-Savage, M.D. says she is concerned that families may resort to desperate measures if the baby formula shortage continues.

“Should the shortage be protracted, we may have a generation of small adults. It is likely that malnutrition in the young years leads to shorter stature as we age and may impair intellectual development,” said Savage.

“But it is reasonable to predict that if formula shortages are prolonged and that babies are either under-fed or parents try to make their own, nutritionally inferior formulas, then you will see more failure to thrive infants which can definitely lead to developmental delays and potential long-term concerns of not reaching their full potential (growth or otherwise).”

The executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, Jane Orient, M.D., says breastfeeding infants may need a bottle if the mom is not available.

“Seems as though this would be a very high government priority,” said Orient.

Controlled Market

The disruption raises a big question:  how can a contamination issue at one manufacturing facility cause nationwide market disruption in an economy that is the largest in the world?

Kim Corba, D.O., a family medicine specialist in Allentown, Pennsylvania says some of her patients are purchasing baby formula from suppliers in Europe.

“It is interesting how a shortage has not impacted other developed countries. The contamination issue in the U.S. was known for months, how is it that nothing was being done with the potential of a plant shutdown? Wasn’t there some recognition of how much this particular plant was contributing to the supply chain,” asked Corba.

One of the largest purchasers of infant formula in the U.S. is the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, under the Department of Agriculture (USDA) known as WIC.

“For me, the most obvious issue is that WIC requires states to contract with a single supplier of infant formula,” said Doug Badger, a senior fellow at the Center for Health and Welfare Policy at the Heritage Foundation and the Galen Institute.

“That supplier, in turn, must provide the state with rebates. This gives the states a cheap rate and erects a barrier to market entry that limits the number of incumbents and grants them a state-sponsored monopoly. The government also discourages the use of infant formula, which suppresses demand, further reducing supply. This Cuban-style approach to markets works until it doesn’t. Contamination at one production facility creates a national crisis,” said Badger.

Badger says this has not been the first time there has been a baby formula shortage. “Congress might want to rethink the design of the WIC program. It might find that competition is the best way to balance supply and demand.”

According to a 2011 analysis by USDA, three manufacturers, account for 98 percent of all U.S. formula sales, Abbott, Mead Johnson, and Nestle. The report said in 2007, California changed the WIC supplier from Abbott to Mead Johnson. Within one year, Abbott’s market share in California dropped from 95 to five percent.

AnneMarie Schieber (amschieber@heartland.org) is the managing editor of Health Care News.

This article was updated on May 16.

AnneMarie Schieber
AnneMarie Schieber
AnneMarie Schieber is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Health Care News, Heartland's monthly newspaper for health care reform.

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