Parents struggle to find infant formula following Abbott product recall

Erica Thompson
The Columbus Dispatch

Shelves of formula in the baby aisle at grocery stores are looking a little bare these days.

Just ask Franklinton mom Malerie Wood, who has struggled to find Enfamil for her 1-month-old daughter.

“There's a shortage,” said Wood, 22. “Like, there's no stores that have them. No Walmarts, no Krogers, no Targets. We’ve looked online. I found one can at Walgreens, literally. Her doctor had to give me a can.”  

Infant formula recall:  What to know about the Abbott baby formula recall

Like other industries, retail is dealing with supply chain issues. And now stores are contending with a limited formula selection following a voluntary recall of Abbott powder formulas—including specific lots of Similac, Similac PM 60/40, Alimentum and EleCare. Although parents have been inconvenienced by the recall, some say they are hesitant to buy those products from the Illinois-based company once they return to shelves.

"Abbott is initiating a proactive, voluntary recall of powder formulas," according to a notice posted on an empty shelf at a Giant Eagle located at 2801 N. High St.

Abbott infant formula recall: Here's what you should know

The affected products are tied to Abbott’s manufacturing facility in Sturgis, Michigan. Two rounds of recalls were made in February following customer complaints related to bacteria known as Cronobacter sakazakii or Salmonella Newport in infants who had consumed powder formula made in that facility.

Two infants have died, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but the causes of their infections have not been determined.

The cases are under investigation, and no link to the formula has been made, said Kim Modory, a senior director of public affairs at Abbott.

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Parents are encouraged to check the lot numbers on the bottom of formula containers to determine if they are included in the recall.

Impacted lots will have a number starting with the first two digits 22 through 37; contain K8, SH, or Z2; and include an expiration date of April 1, 2022, or later (i.e. L31465SH00). The affected Similac PM 60/40 will be labeled 27032K80 (can) or 27032K800 (case).

More information can be found at or by calling 800-986-8540.

Investigation ongoing into baby formula products recalled by Abbott

Evidence of Cronobacter sakazakii was found in the plant in non-product contact areas, according to the Abbott website. No evidence of Salmonella Newport was found.

And no distributed products tested positive for either of the bacteria.

“Our top priority is the health and safety of the infants and children who depend on us,” Modory said. “We value the trust parents place in us for high quality and safe nutrition, and we’ll do whatever it takes to keep that trust. The cases are under investigation and at this time, the cause of the infants’ infections has not been determined. All infant formula products are tested for Cronobacter sakazakii, Salmonella and other pathogens, and they must test negative before any product is released. The company keeps retained samples of each batch. We tested retained product samples related to the complaints for Cronobacter sakazakii and Salmonella, and they tested negative.”

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A spokesperson for Columbus Public Health said Cronobacter is not individually reportable, so they are unable to track cases. And there have been no reports of Salmonella Newport in Franklin County.

Multiple proposed class-action lawsuits have been filed against Abbott Laboratories in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. A Florida firm also filed a nationwide and statewide class-action lawsuit against the company. Modory didn’t offer comment on the status of any legal action.

"Abbott is initiating a proactive, voluntary recall of powder formulas," according to a notice posted on an empty shelf at a Giant Eagle located at 2801 N. High St.

Symptoms to look for relating to Cronobacter, Salmonella infection in infants

Symptoms related to Cronobacter or Salmonella infection include poor feeding, irritability, temperature changes, jaundice, grunting breaths, abnormal movements, lethargy, rash, or blood in the urine or stool, according to the Abbott website.

If parents notice these symptoms in their babies, they should contact their health care provider, who also can suggest alternatives to the recalled Abbott products.

The recall presents a major health concern, said Dr. Robert Murray, 71, of Upper Arlington, who is a member of the Ohio chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Baby formula recall 2022:FDA warns consumers not to use select Similac, Alimentum and EleCare

“This is a huge deal,” said Murray, who spent 25 years in the field of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at Ohio State University, and served as the pediatric medical director for Abbott about two decades ago. “Cronobacter is a bug that's in the environment. It has the ability to survive and thrive in dry food products. For most of us, it's a minor illness if we were to get exposed to it. But for young babies, with an immune system that's still developing, they're the ones who really tend to get sick with this.”

Salmonella is just as serious.

“Each (bug) for the very young infant is a big threat, and can be quite severe, (leading to) sepsis and meningitis,” he said. “And it can even cause death.”

Alternatives are available for recalled baby products, pediatrician says

Murray said Abbott is taking the right testing measures in response to the reports of infection.

“The people at Abbott are like all people who deal with pediatric nutrition; they're very proud of the work they do,” he said. “So, this is a devastating thing for them to go through.”

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He stressed that only a limited number of lots have been affected, and that there are alternatives for most of the recalled products.

“The one that's of the most concern is EleCare,” he said of the formula for infants with severe food allergies, protein maldigestion and other conditions. “I would talk to the physician to find the ideal replacement for that because it's very unique.”

Why is there a baby formula shortage?

Murray said he noticed a limited supply of baby formula even before the recall.

“Demand seems to have gone up a little bit for some of these formulas, but also there seemed to be a problem with transportation and stocking,” he said. “So, this has made a bad situation worse. It's not a production issue, because the companies are continuing to produce at the same rate. I'm assuming it has to do with all the other problems we're having with supply chain issues.”

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Marietta parents Grace and Gavin Tornes also had trouble locating formula for their 2-month-old daughter.

“We were using Similac Pro-Total Comfort, and that was our third formula that finally worked with her,” said Grace, 21. “And then all of ours were recalled. We ended up going to Enfamil. It works with her, but it’s hard to find.”

The married couple and Malerie Wood said they will not go back to the previous Abbott products they were using after the recall.

Never resort to diluting your baby formula.

OhioHealth Mother’s Milk Bank offers resources during infant formula shortage

Despite the shortage, not many parents have turned to the OhioHealth Mother’s Milk Bank, said Chris Smith, outreach and operations coordinator.

“We have received a few calls from families that are not able to get the specialty formulas and are asking what their options are,” Smith said. “We have a packet of paperwork that we send to all prospective outpatient families. As of yet, we haven’t gotten any of that paperwork back.”

But the milk bank did see a 30% increase in demand for donor milk from hospitals prior to the recall.

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“I’m not sure why the hospitals are requesting more milk,” Smith said. “To continue to meet that demand, we need to increase the number of moms that are donating milk. If every breastfeeding mom would donate 200 ounces of milk, we would have more milk than we need. It doesn't take a lot to do a lot of good.”

While the milk is free, there is a processing and handling fee, which could present a challenge if there is an increase in individuals looking for alternatives to formula.

“Is anybody going to help these families cover the cost of it?” Smith asked.

Pediatrician emphasizes importance of sanitation around newborns amid baby formula recall

For Murray, the formula recall underscores the importance of proper sanitation.

“Having had a long career now of almost 40 years, you see these events happen,” he said. “And for every generation of young mothers and fathers, it's a new event, but it is part of the ups and downs of medicine. It occurs with all different companies and for a variety of reasons, and it is scary, but I want to stress the basic principles of cleanliness, hygiene, food preparation and really careful sanitation measures around the young infant. The risk drops off dramatically as they get older, but in those first months, you’ve got to be very, very careful.”