Months after the start of an infant formula shortage in the U.S., many parents are still struggling to find cans and bottles of certain brands, in part because a major formula plant has not yet ramped up production.
But the Abbott Nutrition formula plant in Sturgis, Michigan, is poised to begin production of its main formula soon, a company CEO said recently, while other producers also plan increases in the U.S. that should ease shortages.
For now, however, the missing output from the Sturgis plant has extended a formula shortage that started in February.
A spokesperson for Abbott Nutrition told The Washington Times that its Sturgis plant, which the FDA temporarily shuttered in February over safety issues, is not yet producing Similac, the nation’s most popular line of formula.
The plant has started to produce its specialty line of hypoallergenic formulas, called EleCare, but has not yet shipped those products to stores.
“We restarted EleCare production at Sturgis on July 1 and we’ll begin shipping imminently,” spokesperson John M. Koval said. “We are working to restart Similac production as soon as we can.”
Abbott closed the facility after a formula recall and while the FDA conducted a multiweek inspection that discovered five strains of Cronobacter sakazakii and other safety concerns.
The plant stayed shuttered for months and began the process of reopening in May after reaching an agreement with the FDA. The plant’s start-up was slowed by flooding from torrential storms in mid-June.
The Abbott closure, coupled with the February recall of Similac products, is one of the main reasons empty store shelves persist, while pandemic-related supply chain issues also have contributed to the shortage.
The Sturgis facility accounted for 40% of the U.S. production of Abbott’s popular powdered formula prior to the February closure.
In Tampa, parents continue to rely on social media to find their next can or bottle of formula, posting the location, time and photos of freshly stocked store shelves.
Parents regularly barter online with each other for hard-to-find formula products that include Nutramigen, Enfamil AR, Enfamil Enfacare, Enfamil Sensitive, Similac Advance, Similac 360 and many others, particularly hypoallergenic formulas.
“My baby only tolerates Enfamil AR and it’s so scarce,” Danielle Heerschap of Tampa told The Washington Times.
Not all scarce formulas, including Enfamil, are produced by Abbott. But the Abbott closure and supply chain issues have caused shortages of formulas made by the nation’s two other main producers, Mead Johnson Nutrition/Reckitt and Nestle USA.
Like Abbott Nutrition, they are also working to ramp up overseas shipments and domestic production.
A spokesperson for Reckitt, the formula producer owned by Mead Johnson and the maker of Enfamil, said the company is ramping up imports of formula from their facilities overseas to help meet demand and is producing more formula in the U.S. as well.
“The first shipment of infant formula powder has been finished and packaged at our facility in Wanamingo, Minnesota, and has already begun being distributed as Enfamil to store shelves nationwide,” said spokesperson Elissa Dodge.
The shortage of formula has persisted despite significant efforts by the Biden administration to import formula from overseas.
The administration’s “Operation Fly Formula” has completed dozens of flights that have imported more than 55 million 8-ounce bottle equivalents of infant formula, according to administration officials.
Much of that supply has been provided to hospitals and other facilities that require specialty formula to help infants with critical feeding needs. The administration also has shipped in foreign brands of formula from countries including Australia, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.
But American parents continue to hunt for familiar U.S. brands, much of them produced by Abbott Nutrition, and now some are noticing the less-expensive generic brands are selling out.
“Recently generic gentle formula has been nonexistent in stores or online,” Rachel Gilmore, a Tampa mother whose infant uses formula, said.
The shortage could be alleviated in the coming weeks.
While Abbott Nutrition won’t say when Similac will be produced again at the Sturgis plant, Abbott Laboratories CEO Robert Ford told investors on July 20 the plant was “very close” to beginning Similac production.
“I don’t want to necessarily kind of put an exact date here, but we’re not talking months, we’re not talking weeks,” Mr. Ford said.
Mr. Ford said Abbott had appointed a special team “to shorten the time between manufacturer and on-shelf availability.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the brand Enfamil was misspelled on one reference.