MICHIGAN

Recalled Michigan-made baby formula alarms Detroit area parents after deaths

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Parents in Metro Detroit and nationwide have been alarmed by the recall of a popular baby formula manufactured in Michigan after federal investigators determined it might be linked to some infants' illnesses and deaths. 

The recall includes Similac, Similac PM, Alimentum and EleCare formulas manufactured by Abbott Laboratories at a plant in the southwest Michigan town of Sturgis.

Tens of thousands of Michigan babies have been receiving Similac formulas through WIC, the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. 

Michigan has 198,465 people enrolled in the WIC program, including about 38,000 infants who are partially or exclusively fed with formula, said Michigan Department of Health and Human Service spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin. About 85% of Michigan WIC clients who have formula included in their food packages are affected by the Similac recall, Sutfin said.

Abbott issued the voluntary recall in February after the federal Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that four infants who were hospitalized with infections had been fed formula from those lots, including two babies who died. 

Dar'Naja Cotton-Rich plays with her seven-month-old son, Jerome Moses II, in their Detroit home on March 16, 2022. The baby has suffered for months with digestive issues, rashes and nasal congestion while drinking the free Similac formula she gets through the federal WIC program. This week, a store let her switch brands and still get the baby formula for free.

Wendy Jackson, 49, of Southfield said she plans to sue Abbott over the Similac she fed to her 2-and-a-half-month-old son, Daxton, for weeks after running into problems with breastfeeding. He struggled with digestion issues and skin rashes that she suspects might have been caused by the formula. 

"I switched to another brand of formula, and all the symptoms started to go away," Jackson said. "The next thing you know, they had a recall."

Jackson is represented by Southfield Attorney Dionne Webster Cox, who said her phone was "ringing off the hook" Wednesday with calls from parents whose babies were fed some of the recalled formula. 

Jackson said the lot numbers on the bottom of one of the formula cans matched one of the lot numbers recalled by the company. She planned to discuss her suspicions about the formula with Daxton's pediatrician at an appointment on Friday. 

On Feb. 17, Abbott voluntarily recalled lots of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare products produced at the southwest Michigan facility. The expansive recall included nearly 50 brands marketed under those names. 

Then on Feb. 28, Similac PM 60/40 powdered formula also was recalled, in response to a report that an infant who had consumed Similac PM 60/40 from that lot had died after testing positive for Cronobacter sakazakii, a form of severe infection from a foodborne pathogen. 

The company has said bacteria was found in parts of the Sturgis manufacturing facility that are not involved in production of the formulas. In a statement emailed to The Detroit News, Abbott said the company keeps retained samples of each batch.

"We tested retained product samples related to the complaints for Cronobacter sakazakii and Salmonella, and they tested negative," Abbott company said in its statement. 

What investigations have found

In the cases under investigation, the infants were infected with Cronobacter sakazakii, a bacteria sometimes found in dry foods, like powdered infant formula, powdered milk, herbal teas and starches. Cronobacter has been linked to meningitis and other serious infections in infants, sometimes resulting in death. 

The illnesses and deaths occurred in Minnesota, Ohio and Texas, and remain under joint investigation by the CDC and FDA, as well as the state and local health departments where the incidents occurred. 

The investigation initially included four reports of Cronobacter sakazakii infections in infants, three from complaints filed with the FDA, and one from a CDC case finding, as well as one complaint of a Salmonella Newport infection in an infant.

All five illnesses resulted in hospitalization, and investigators concluded that Cronobacter may have contributed to the deaths of two of the patients. 

The FDA has since determined there was not enough information to definitively link the Salmonella Newport case to the recalled formula. The CDC also confirmed that the single Salmonella illness was not linked to the outbreak. The federal agencies are continuing to monitor Salmonella cases for a possible connection, the FDA said on its website.

The voluntary recall affects only the powdered products made at the Michigan plant, said Dr. Karyn Wulf, a pediatrician and medical director of pediatrics at Abbott, appearing in a video posted on the Abbott Laboratories' website. The recall does not affect any of Similac's liquid products, or any products made at facilities other than the Sturgis facility.   

"Cronobacter sakazakii was found to be present in this facility in a location not in contact with product," Wulf said in the video. "To date, no distributed product has tested positive for either the presence of Cronobacter sakazakii or Salmonella Newport." 

If caregivers have fed a baby or child impacted formula and have not seen any symptoms, no action needs to be taken, she continued.

"If you have observed symptoms such as fever, poor feeding, excessive crying, very low energy or diarrhea, please contact your health care provider immediately," Wulf said. 

Recall creates confusion 

Parents can determine if the product they purchased is part of the recall by checking the lot number with a lot locator at similacrecall.com. The lot number is a multi-digit number posted on the bottom of the container. Enter the number into the lot locator on the website to find out if the product has been recalled. 

Parents also can call (800) 986-8540. 

If the product isn't part of the recall, no further action needs to be taken, and parents can continue to feed the formula to their infant. If the product is part of the recall, parents should stop using it and return it to the seller for a refund or exchange. 

Dar'Naja Cotton-Rich plays with her seven-month-old son Jerome Moses II, in their Detroit home, March 16, 2022.

The recall has created confusion for parents like Dar'Naja Cotton-Rich, who has been getting coupons for free Similac formula through WIC. She said her 7-month-old, Jerome Moses II, has suffered for months with digestive issues, rashes and nasal congestion. 

A nurse finally told her the problems might possibly be caused by the baby's formula. But she'd already gone shopping and had two and a half cans of Similac to use up.

The recall hit home on Wednesday when she went to the store, and there was no Similac on the shelves. She said officials at her local WIC office in Detroit told her they couldn't switch the authorization on her card to another brand. But the grocery store allowed her to substitute another brand when she went to purchase formula on Wednesday.  

"Clients with food packages that contain potentially recalled formulas, and who have also opted to receive WIC text/phone notifications were notified of their options, directing them to step-by-step instructions on what to do for benefits already redeemed, unredeemed benefits and special formulas," Michigan HHS spokeswoman Sutfin said.

Information about the recall, including a list of products that can be substituted for the recalled items, is available on the MDHHS website. 

kbouffard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @kbouffardDN