Abbott ramping up baby formula production at Columbus facility amid national shortage

Cole Behrens
The Columbus Dispatch

Abbott Laboratories announced Monday it is ramping up production of its infant formula Similac at its Columbus facility amid a nationwide shortage.

The company's main production facility in Michigan remains closed over sanitation safety concerns. 

The Chicago-based company said in a release it has “prioritized infant formula production” at its Columbus Abbott Nutrition facility, converting other manufacturing lines into manufacturing its Similac “ready-to-feed” baby formula. 

News:FDA reaches deal with Abbott to reopen baby formula factory; how long until it's back on shelves?

The baby formula shortage was made worse in February after an inspection by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found various sanitation issues at Abbott's main production plant in Sturgis, Michigan, that led to a plant shutdown.

Abbott Laboratories, 585 Cleveland Ave., in Columbus.

Why did Abbott recall baby formula?

Abbott announced it was voluntarily recalling certain types of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare powdered formulas and Similac PM 60/40, a specialty liquid formula, manufactured at the plant. 

"We know millions of parents and caregivers depend on us and we're deeply sorry that our voluntary recall worsened the nationwide formula shortage,” Abbott said in a release.

The recall was initiated after consumer reports to the FDA and Centers for Disease Control about a handful of infants becoming seriously ill with bacterial infections after consuming products from the plant.

A look back:What to know about the Abbott baby formula recall

Cronobacter sakazakii can cause "severe, life-threatening infections (sepsis) or meningitis (an inflammation of the membranes that protect the brain and spine). Symptoms of sepsis and meningitis may include poor feeding, irritability, temperature changes, jaundice (yellow skin and whites of the eyes), grunting breaths, and abnormal body movements. Cronobacter infection may also cause bowel damage and may spread through the blood to other parts of the body," according to the FDA website

Four of the babies who became seriously ill had Cronobacter infections, the FDA said. Two of the babies have reportedly died, though no direct connection between the product and areas with bacterial problems at the plant has been made by the FDA or CDC. 

A bare shelf where Abbott's powdered baby formula sat on March at a Giant Eagle store at 2801 N. High St. after the company announced a voluntary recall due to potential contamination.

Abbott waiting for approval to reopen Sturgis, Michigan facility

There was some more good news Monday.  Besides ramping up production in Columbus, Abbott said it would be increasing production of powdered formula at an Arizona facility. Other production facilities are working at “full capacity to replenish the market," the company said in a release. 

More importantly, Abbott announced it had agreed to enter into a consent decree with the FDA on steps necessary to resume production at its Sturgis production facility and to maintain the facility going forward. The decree is subject to court approval, but Abbott has said the Sturgis facility could begin operations within two weeks once it gets the go-ahead. 

However, Abbott also has said that even after production is restarted at Sturgis, it could take some six to eight weeks before product made there actually reaches store shelves.

What caused the infant formula shortage in the US?

The nation has been gripped by an on-off-on-again baby formula shortage that first appeared in 2020 with stockpiling by consumers due to COVID. 

The latest baby formula shortage has been a problem since November, when about 11% of popular brands were out of stock, USA Today previously reported. As of May 8, 43% of baby formula was sold out at retailers across the U.S. because of recalls and supply chain strains.   

Cole Behrens is a reporter at The Columbus Dispatch covering public safety and breaking news. You can reach him at CBehrens@dispatch.com or find him on Twitter at @Colebehr_report