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Flooding Shutters Factory Responsible for 20% of US Baby Formula Production

Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: June 16, 2022
A factory responsible for 20% of US baby formula production is shuttered after being hit by flooding.
An Abbott Laboratories logo in Illinois in 2004. The company’s Sturgis factory, which reopened less than two weeks ago after being shuttered in February for bacterial contamination, has to be closed again after a major storm flooded the region. The facility was previously responsible for 20 percent of U.S. baby formula production. (Image: Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

One of the largest factories in the United States for producing baby formula has been shuttered after suffering severe flooding during a recent freak storm.

Abbott Laboratories made the announcement on June 15 that it would close its factory in Sturgis, Michigan to “assess damage caused by the storm and clean and re-sanitize the plant.”

Same day reporting by The Wall Street Journal stated that the Sturgis factory “produced roughly one-fifth of the infant formula in the U.S.” before it was shut down.

ECONOMIC CRISES

Abbott’s Sturgis facility has notoriety in the baby formula circle because it was shut down in February “when the FDA found traces of a potentially deadly bacteria, raising the possibility that contaminated products from the plant had caused the illness of several infants,” stated a June 8 WSJ article.

A May 11 WSJ article clarifies that four babies were sickened, two of which died.

The June 8 article focused around a complaint filed by a whistleblower to the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration who had been sounding the alarm on problems at the plant as far back as February of 2021.

A May 25 article by Axios stated that the FDA was first alerted to a bacterial infection in an infant who consumed Abbott’s wares as far back as Sept. 20, 2021, “But the agency says it did not discover the pathogen in the product after testing was completed.”

Axios went on to illustrate significant problems with the Administration’s response: “After another case was reported on Dec. 1, FDA set an inspection for Dec. 30 but ended up delaying it for a month after Abbott notified the agency of a dozen COVID-19 cases among its employees.”

And added, “Once they completed their inspection, FDA investigators found ‘serious cracks’ in key equipment; ‘water leaks and condensation, which are risk factors for Cronobacter, in areas where dry powdered formula was produced’; and inadequate hand-washing.”

The Sturgis facility was reopened less than two weeks ago on June 4. 

The May 11 article revealed the lag time between when production begins and when product can be available for consumers is significant, making the pain of having to reclose the plant under the current formula crisis all the more exacerbated.

“Abbott said it would take six to eight weeks after restarting production before product is available on store shelves,” WSJ stated. “The company said it would begin with producing specialty formulas, such as those for people with rare metabolic diseases, and then start production of its widely known brands like Similac.”

And indeed, Abbott’s press release on the closure focused on its EleCare line of formula. 

The company messaging stated that, “Based upon historical demand and current projections, Abbott has ample existing supply of EleCare and most of its specialty and metabolic formulas to meet needs for these products until new product is available.”

Abbott added that in the time since the original Sturgis plant closure in February, the company had been able to ramp its production levels back up to 95 percent of what they were in January, sans production from the Sturgis re-opening.

The storm in Sturgis was quite severe. June 15 reporting by local CBS affiliate Channel 3 stated that one county had been without power for two days.

One local farm said they lost power during the first five minutes of the storm and had to rely on a backup generator to keep their animals cooled and watered in the heat. 

The cost to run the generator under current average fuel prices in Sturgis of $4.89 per gallon cost the family $200 over the course of two days.