U.S. House panel sets hearing on baby formula shortage exacerbated by recall from Michigan plant

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — A U.S. House committee announced plans for a May 25 hearing on a national baby formula shortage fueled in part by a February recall by the manufacturer Abbot for products made at its Michigan plant. 

Those recalled products included powder formula sold under the labels Similac, Alimentum and EleCare labels after four children became ill with bacterial infections and two died. The Abbott Laboratories plant in the southwest Michigan town of Sturgis remains closed.

A due to limited supplies sign is displayed on the baby formula shelf at a grocery store Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in Salt Lake City.

No witness information has yet been announced by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which scheduled the May 25 hearing, but a spokesman said it's likely that Abbott will be invited to testify. 

"In order for the hearing to be productive, we believe the committee needs to hear directly from FDA and Abbott," spokesman CJ Young said. 

Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, said the focus would be on the causes of the shortage, what is being done to boost production and supply so far and what else could be done. 

“The nationwide infant formula shortages are increasingly alarming and demand Congress’ immediate attention,” Pallone said in a statement. “Ensuring the safety and well-being of our nation’s children, including safe and nutritious formula, is one of our most important collective responsibilities."

Some retailers have begun limiting how much formula consumers may purchase at once. 

The formula shortage has been "compounded by supply chain challenges, product recalls and historic inflation," according to CEO Ben Reich of the firm Datasembly, which tracks retail pricing and availability.

Abbott has stressed that inspections by the Food and Drug Administration and the company have suggested that the infant formula produced at the Sturgis facility is "not likely" the source of infection in the reported cases of illness, and that there was not an outbreak caused by products from the facility.

"We know this situation has worsened the industry-wide infant formula supply shortage and we regret the anxiety and stress this is causing," Joe Manning, Abbott's executive vice president for nutritional products, said in a late April statement.

"Abbott is committed to working with the FDA to address this situation so we can resume operations at this facility and continue serving the nutritional needs of people who rely on our infant and specialty formulas."

An FDA spokesperson said the plant remains "voluntarily" closed as the company works to correct findings related to the processes, procedures and conditions that federal officials reported during their March inspection of the facility, which raised concerns that powdered infant formula produced at the facility prior to the FDA’s inspection carried a risk of contamination.

"The FDA is continuing to work diligently to ensure the safe resumption of production of infant formula at Abbott Nutrition’s Sturgis, Michigan facility," the spokeswoman said.

Abbott Laboratories manufacturing plant is shown in Sturgis, Mich., Sept. 23, 2010.

White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Wednesday called the shortage an "urgent issue," saying the FDA and the White House are "working 24/7" to address. "They are committed to pulling every lever and are ready to making progress and getting more supply onto the market."

Steps are being taken by the FDA to work with major formula manufacturers to encourage them to boost production, expanding their hours of operation for production, improving supply lines and product sizes to increase capacity, and trying to expedite imports of foreign baby formula to increase supply, Jean-Pierre said.

mburke@detroitnews.com