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As baby formula plant aims to restart production, Connecticut advocates call for long-term solutions

Blumenthal Baby Formula Press Conference
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal holds a can of baby formula during a news conference at the Diaper Bank of Connecticut, where he and other advocates called on federal agencies to find quicker solutions to the national baby formula shortage. He said the can of Similac formula used to go for $30 on eBay and now is listed at $80. Blumenthal said he supports more imports of formula, speeding up manufacturing, and measures to stop price gouging and fraud.

Baby formula manufacturer Abbott announced Monday that the company could restart production at its plant in Sturgis, Michigan, within two weeks.

It would take an additional six to eight weeks before more formula hits the shelves, officials said in a news release.

“Our number one priority is getting infants and families the high-quality formulas they need, and this is a major step toward reopening our Sturgis facility so we can ease the nationwide formula shortage,” Robert Ford, Abbott chairman and CEO, said in a statement.

The terms of returning to production is part of a preliminary deal between the manufacturer and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The plan is subject to court approval.

Abbott would first begin producing its EleCare, Alimentum and metabolic formulas, and then its Similac products and other formulas.

Abbott’s formula plant in Michigan has been closed since February. The company, one of the largest manufacturers of baby formula in the country, issued a major product recall that was prompted by four cases of infants who had become ill with bacterial infections after consuming powdered baby formula.

Two of the infants died. An inspection led by the FDA found that the manufacturing plant failed to have a sufficient process in place to ensure that products weren’t contaminated.

Abbott maintains that there’s no “conclusive evidence” to link its products to the infant illnesses and deaths.

Meanwhile, parents and families in Connecticut have felt the impact of the recall, which exacerbated existing supply chain issues and cost problems.

“So many Connecticut residents and families with young children already did not have access to formula, because they could not afford it,” said Janet Stolfi Alfano, executive director of the Diaper Bank of Connecticut. “This supply chain issue impacts them even more severely.”

Blumenthal Baby Formula Press Conference
Ryan Caron King/Connecticut Publ/Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Janet Stolfi Alfano (right) executive director of the Diaper Bank of Connecticut, speaks with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal after a news conference where they both called on federal agencies to find quicker solutions to the national baby formula shortage. She said many families in Connecticut can’t afford baby formula, and the shortage has made it even harder for them to access it.

The Diaper Bank of Connecticut, a nonprofit located in North Haven, primarily serves low-income and vulnerable families with infant products and support services. It’s working with more than 60 community organizations to distribute a supply of baby formula.

Alfano said that in April alone, the organization helped about 1,180 families in need of formula.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) paid a visit to the bank Monday where he called on federal agencies to solve the current crisis.

“We need to take action to make more product available, which means more competition, more supply,” he said. “The government has a role here because this is a vital commodity.”

Blumenthal, working in partnership with U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), has requested that federal agencies ease some regulatory requirements to ramp up imports of baby formula from other countries, like waiving tariffs and some labeling requirements.

He also called for more resources to help speed up manufacturing at other U.S.-based formula companies and a crackdown on price gouging and scams.

“What we are hearing is that prices have been raised double and triple, from $30 a can to $80 a can,” Blumenthal said.

Parents and families say issues with accessing baby formula predate the current crisis. And for that, Blumenthal said there needs to be longer-term solutions to improving the market, including creating more competition.

Four major manufacturing companies produce about 90% of formula in the U.S.

“The government has a role; it ought to be more aggressive,” Blumenthal said. “This crisis provides an opportunity to do something about the long-term shortages that existed before February, and will exist again after this immediate crisis is solved.”

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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