U.S. to boost baby formula imports to ease nationwide shortage after Abbott Nutrition recall

Baby formula is offered for sale at a big box store on January 13, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.

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The U.S. will increase baby formula imports as part of an effort to ease a nationwide shortage, senior Biden administration officials said on Thursday.

The scarcity of formula was triggered in part by the closure of a Michigan manufacturing plant after two infants who consumed its products caught bacterial infections and died.

The Food and Drug Administration will announce specific actions to boost formula imports in the coming days, the officials said. The U.S. produces 98% of the infant formula its consumes. Chile, Ireland, Mexico and the Netherlands are potential sources for additional imports, according to the officials.

Abbott Nutrition, the nation’s largest baby formula manufacturer, issued a recall in February for several powered formulas. The move came after four infants who consumed products from its Sturgis, Michigan, plant were hospitalized with infections from the bacteria Cronobacter sakazakii. Two of the infants died.

Abbott closed the Sturgis plant and recalled its Similac PM 60/40, Similac, Alimentum and EleCare powered formulas manufactured at the Michigan facility. The company said Cronobacter sakazakii was found at the plant, but not in areas where it makes product. All finished product tested came back negative for the bacteria, according to Abbott.

The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have instructed parents to check Abbott’s website to find out if they have a product under recall. The FDA is advising consumers not to use recalled Similac, Alimentum or EleCare powdered infant formulas.

The plant closure and recall have left parents scrambling to find baby formula.

During the first week of May, 43% of baby formula supplies were out of stock at stores across the U.S., according to Datasembly, a company that tracks retail data. Abbott said it can restart the Sturgis plant within two weeks if the FDA signs off, but it will take up to eight weeks for products to make it to stores.

President Joe Biden met earlier on Thursday with Walmart, Target, Reckitt and Gerber to discuss ways to ease the shortage. Biden has asked the Federal Trade Commission to use its power to monitor reports of price gouging amid the shortage, and the Justice Department is working with state attorneys general to deal with predatory behavior by retailors, the administration officials said.

The CDC has not identified any additional cases of infection related to the powered formula and has closed its investigation. It has called for state health departments to report any infant Cronobacter infections they find.

Cronobacter can cause blood infections or make the linings around the brain and spinal cord swell, according to the CDC. Symptoms include a fever, poor feeding, excessive crying, very low energy and seizures.

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(With inputs from CNBC)