America no longer has baby food

Not easy at all, babysitters around the country are forced to spend their free time driving from store to store in search of baby food, leaving retailers limited. the number of canned goods a customer can buy. Others turn to Facebook groups and informal support networks to purchase the most appropriate nutritional products for their children.

How did a baby food crisis happen in one of the wealthiest countries in the world? Experts say the retreat of one of the industry’s biggest manufacturers, supply chain continuity problems and a market with only a few dominant players have combined to form what one Consumer goods experts called the “perfect storm” affecting the supply of essential formulas to millions of people. of infants in the United States. This deficiency can last for many months. The reasons for the crisis are as follows.

Baby food poisoning?

Abbott Nutrition is the food industry arm of healthcare and medical device giant Abbott Laboratories, and it is making products from high-carbohydrate beverages to help patients recover from surgery. to energy drinks, infant formula and water. Although it maintains a global production network, the plant in Sturgis, Michigan is one of the few in the US that produces formula.

On February 17, Abbott voluntarily recalled products made by Sturgis and closed the factory after it was reported that 4 infants became ill with bacterial infections and 2 died after consuming the food. products are manufactured in the factory. A whistleblower report was filed with the FDA in October 2021, and it alleges health and safety compliance issues at the facility and contributed to the agency’s official inspection in this early year.

And the company is waiting for approval to reopen. “We understand that the situation is urgent – getting Sturgis up and running will help alleviate this shortfall,” the company said in a statement. Luck. After conducting its own investigation, including genomic sequencing of the bacteria, the company reported that nothing in its facilities matched the specific strain of bacteria that caused the illness. and death.

“Cronobacter sakazakii was found during environmental testing during the investigation located in non-product contact areas of the establishment and was not associated with any known infant illness,” the company said in a statement.

However, the FDA discovered more problems with the facility beyond its prior contamination. After a separate test, which took place from January 31 to March 18, the FDA said that it observed Cronobacter sakazakii “in the medium and high-care areas of infant formula production,” a problem regardless of whether it is the same strain or not. have caused specific infant deaths.

The agency also said in its report that the company “does not guarantee that all infant formula contact surfaces are maintained to protect infant formula from contamination by any source.” any.” According to the FDA, the company is still working to “correct the findings” of its inspection. Therefore, the factory has not yet been able to reopen.

According to the company, Abbott won’t be able to get products from its Sturgis facility on shelves for another six to eight weeks. And that’s only if it reopens as soon as possible.

Even after the factory reopened and started delivering baby food to families again, a bigger question remained: How did closing a single manufacturing plant stop? could drastically affect access to nutrition for millions of infants?

Exclusive in the US market

The infant formula market exists as a general monopoly, with only a few manufacturers controlling nearly the entire supply.

Abbott had a market share of about 43% a decade ago, according to a 2011 USDA report, the most recent figure available.

Since then there has been a little change. The company maintains exclusive supply contracts in many states with WIC, the USDA’s supplemental nutrition program for low-income families that accounts for nearly half of national baby food sales. . Several other manufacturers, including Mead-Johnson and Nestlé, also have contracts with WIC and control the rest of the market.

Also, the baby food market is tough for another reason.

Its demand is determined by the country’s birth rate, and the market has been shrinking for years. The number of births has decreased every year since 2008 except 2014, according to the US Census Bureau.

With only a handful of key players potentially attached to a shrinking market, the consequences are inevitable when something gets in the way of a certain product reaching store shelves. Other manufacturers are forced to grapple with a new wave of demand from consumers who can’t afford what they normally buy.

“The dilemma (manufacturers) face is that it is not a very lucrative market,” said Professor Patrick Penfield at Syracuse University. “The only way you can increase your market share is if you aggressively follow the competition.” Because Abbott is already one of the biggest players in the game, significantly expanding his bet isn’t really an option.

“I’m not saying that’s what Abbott Laboratories did,” he warned. “But that would be an assumption of mine.”

Is FDA responsible for baby food shortages?

Abbott is not the only company that may be at fault. “There’s a lot to be blamed for going around here,” said Professor Scott Faber at Georgetown University’s law center and vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.

Faber found that the FDA itself was partly responsible for the shortfall. The agency did not respond quickly enough to the whistleblower’s report and should have conducted an inspection of the plant sooner.

“When a drunk driver causes a car crash, the drunk driver bears most of the blame, but the bartender looked the other way when he served too many drinks,” he said. I said.

When submitting the filing report last month, Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) wrote, “I am also concerned that the FDA has responded too slowly to this report. The report has been filed. filed with the FDA on October 20, 2021. The FDA did not interview the whistleblower until the end of December 2021. According to news reports, the FDA did not personally inspect the plant until January 31, 2021. 2022 and the recall was not launched until February 17, 2022.”

The agency did not complete the examination and issue observations to Abbott until March 18. The company said it has since worked to update its education and training protocols, as well as cleaning and maintenance procedures. “The FDA isn’t going to shut down that plant if they don’t find anything,” Penfield said. “So there’s definitely some kind of noncompliance going on.”

Now the FDA is working to catch up to a crisis that seems to have been moving slowly for months.

“The FDA recognizes that many consumers have been unable to access infant formula and other important health foods they are used to and are frustrated that they cannot do so,” the agency said. said in a statement. Luck. “The agency is doing everything in its power to make sure products are available where and when they need them.”

The future of baby food

The White House held a press conference this week to address the shortage of baby food and how they plan to replenish it as quickly as possible with guaranteed safety.

“Those steps include cutting the first red tape to get more infant formula on the shelves by urging states to provide flexibility in the WIC program, which could be the main driver leading to some supply disruptions,” said a senior administration official. The official added that the administration is asking the FTC and state attorneys general to monitor whether third-party sellers overcharge.

The official outlined a third route to alleviating baby food shortages: foreign imports. “The United States typically produces 98% of the infant formula it consumes, and trading partners in Mexico, Chile, Ireland and the Netherlands are important sources of imports,” he said at a press conference. .

However, there is no timeline as to when those imported formulations will arrive in the US and be distributed. On Friday, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf tweeted that the agency would announce its plans next week.

When asked how long the shortages would last, the official said there was no estimate on when Abbott facilities would reopen.

“I see the shortage continuing in the coming weeks,” Penfield said. “I think there’s a lot of pressure on Abbott to build and operate that plant. And until they do, you’re going to see shortages continue like this.”

Source: Medindia

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