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Baby-Formula Shortage Shows US Failure to Support Parents

Amidst Baby-Formula Shortage, Abbott Nutrition Resumes Production. But Is It Enough?

Abbott Nutrition, a leading baby formula manufacturer, announced on August 26 that it will resume making its formula, Similac, after shutting down a Michigan plant in February over safety concerns.

The Abbott Nutrition shutdown was a major factor in the country-wide baby formula shortage, further exacerbated by pandemic-related supply shortages.

Chief Executive of Abbott Nutrition Robert B. Ford said in a news release, "We know that the nationwide infant formula shortage has been difficult for the families we serve, and while restarting Similac production in Michigan is an important milestone, we won't rest until this product is back on shelves."

Ford continued: "Making infant formula is a responsibility we take very seriously, and parents can feel confident in the quality and safety of Similac and other Abbott formulas. We are committed to re-earning the trust parents and health care providers have placed in us for decades."

The statement references concerns over the safety of the company's products. On February 17, the company, in cooperation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), recalled three different types of formula — Similac, Alimentu, and EleCare — after reports that four infants became ill after consuming formula contaminated with bacterium. Two infants were hospitalized and two died as a result of the Cronobacter bacteria. But it was later acknowledged that the FDA had "received additional reports of children dying or being sickened after allegedly drinking formula made there [at the Michigan plant]" per the Washington Post.

In a letter to Ford from Senator Elizabeth Warren regarding the formula shortage, Warren wrote that "Abbott Laboratories has been cutting corners on equipment and safety protocols for years, padding your profits while putting toddlers, children, and adults reliant on your products at risk." Warren also cited 17 consumer complaints regarding the formulas leading up to the recall, as well as unsanitary conditions (also cited by an FDA official as "egregiously unsanitary"), and samples of Cronobacter bacteria as early as January 2019.

Per the New York Times, Abbott has stated there is no "conclusive evidence" to link the cases of illness to Abbott Nutrition's formula.

The baby-formula shortage that has been slowly intensifying for months is now reaching a state of emergency in the US: At the end of the July 24 week, about 20 percent of all formula types were out of stock, according to an Information Resources Inc. report, per CNN. Caregivers faced with empty shelves are sharing stories of finding price-gouged bottles online and feeding their infants cows' milk or homemade or watered-down formula. The latter strategies go against doctors' recommendations, as cow's milk can impact growth in children under a year old, and homemade or altered formula may lack the right nutritional balance and cause other health problems related to growth and development, per Cleveland Clinic. Homemade baby formula can also harbor contaminants that may lead to infections, which are sometimes life-threatening. But those warnings pale in comparison to the immediate crisis of trying to feed a hungry child or make a can of formula last for weeks.

To answer the question, "Why not just breastfeed?" — well, that's not always the right option — or an option at all — for some people. Despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed in the first six months, many parents are unable to do so, whether because of lactation or latching issues, medications, or unsupportive work policies, including lack of parental leave. Nearly 75 percent of babies in the US receive some form of infant formula by the time they are 6 months old, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The Biden administration and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are apparently working on the issue, with White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre telling reporters that the FDA is working to maximize formula-production capabilities, speed up the FDA review process, and expand hours of operation for manufacturers, among other actions. The crisis continues, however, leaving parents and caregivers frustrated and panicked.

The shortage has been getting worse for months, but it's hard to ignore the timing of the current crisis, which coincides with the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

Both crises — the baby-formula shortage and the loss of abortion rights — speak to the grave disservice being done to birthing people in the US. We're talking about the country that holds the "highest rate of maternal mortality in the industrialized world," according to ProPublica. A 2020 report from the Commonwealth Fund found that the US ranks worst in maternity care — including a low supply of care providers and postpartum supports — when compared to ten other developed nations. Financial support for and availability of childcare in the US also lags far behind other countries. Notably, most of these figures are even worse for people of color in the US — Black women, for example, are three times more likely to have a maternal death than white women.

It's the cruelest kind of irony to restrict abortion rights while refusing to provide basic maternal, postpartum, and child care for people who give birth. Of course, this isn't a new observation — it's just that now, even more people will be forced to carry children while lacking the most basic resources to take care of them.

While the baby-formula shortage will eventually end, the country's neglect of birthing people and children is a deeper-seated issue that grows more pressing every day — and shows no signs of ending.

- Additional reporting by Sara Youngblood Gregory

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