Baby formula shortage affecting Connecticut as leaders seek to take action

Photo of Ken Dixon

NORTH HAVEN — Tens of thousands of Connecticut infants and toddlers may be affected by the national shortage of nutritional formula following the contamination earlier this year of product at one of the few major makers, prompting U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Rosa Delauro on Monday to urge two key federal agencies to produce more and investigate price gouging.

They called for waiving tariffs to encourage imports of formula from places such as Mexico, Ireland, The Netherlands and other countries; and utilizing the federal Defense Production Act, as suggested last week by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York to prod the industry, which is dominated by just a few major producers who manufacture about 90 percent of formula supplies.

Bacteria-related product recalls exacerbated existing supply chain problems and with a third of Connecticut children living at or near the poverty line, non-profit agencies such as The Diaper Bank of Connecticut here are scrambling to help parents meet the needs that have become even more pressing since the February 17 closure of the Abbott Laboratories’ troubled Michigan factory.

“There was a shortage of formula even before the Abbott plant shut down,” Blumenthal said during a morning news conference in The Diaper Bank’s warehouse and loading dock here. Two infant deaths and numerous sicknesses have been linked to contaminated formula resulting in the recalls of tainted Silimac, and other formulas including Alimentum, and EleCare.

“The out-of-stock numbers were in the 20-percent range before February, March,” Blumenthal said. “They are now at 40 percent throughout our state and nation.”

Baby formula maker Abbott said Monday it has reached an agreement with U.S. health regulators to restart production at its largest domestic factory, though it will be well over a month before any new products ship from the site to help alleviate the national shortage facing parents.

Seventy-five percent of babies consume formula within the first six months of their lives, said Blumenthal, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security.

“We need action to address the immediate shortage, but also a longer-term plan to address the shortage problem that existed before this crisis,” he said. “What we are hearing is that prices have been raised, double and triple, from $30 a can to $80 a can. That is absolutely inexcusable, horrendous, unacceptable. This is a vital product. The government has a role. It must be more aggressive.”

DeLauro, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Blumenthal wrote to both the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission asking for action, including the encouragement of more manufacturers.

“It can be done without legislation to speed manufacturing, to move product, through reopening the Abbott facility as quickly as possible and making those production lines effective again,” Blumenthal said. “From the FTC we are asking action against the price gouging and fraud that is becoming more rampant.”

He noted reports from recipients of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Women Infants and Children’s nutrition program, who are being visited by scammers offering refunds on infant formula, but not providing payment.

He said that the Department of Agriculture’s (DOA) sole-source contracting framework might be exacerbating the manufacturing problems by limiting individual states to only one supplier.

DeLauro, during a virtual news conference earlier Monday morning, said the FDA stalled for four months on the issue after receiving a whistleblower complaint from a former Abbott employee.

“In essence, they were selling a contaminated product,” DeLauro said, noting that Abbott has a $1.7-billion contract for the WIC program. “They falsified records relating to to testing of their seals. They released untested infant formula. The allegations went on and on. They found lax practices associated with cleanliness in the workplace; lack of traceability.”

DeLauro said that the timeline between October, when the DOA got the complaint, includes a December interview with the whistle blower, but the products were not recalled until February. “There is an investigation needed with what Abbott has done, and also the Food and Drug Administration, and why it took them so long to make this information available.”

DeLauro said she would introduce legislation this week to boost supplies of formula, and hearings starting this week on the issues.

As of last Friday, state Attorney General William Tong had not received price-gouging complaints, but parents had voiced concerns about baby formula supply problems.

“Connecticut’s retail price gouging statute is tied to an emergency declaration by the governor,” Tong said in a statement Friday. “Right now, our price gouging authority is specific to the gas price spikes. But that is not license for scammers to take advantage of scared families. I am speaking with other attorneys general across the country to consider every legal option available to hold sellers accountable and ensure safe, affordable access to formula. Parents need to be really careful right now to avoid scams or fraud— for pocketbook as well as health and safety considerations.”

Tong warned parents to be careful and only buy formula online from legitimate vendors, “and be really skeptical of pop-up sites or individuals selling off personal stock.”

“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. “This supply chain issue impacts them even more severely.”

She said that at any point, the state’s population of newborns to three-year-olds is about 100,000, with about 30,000 under a year of age.

Marisa Merlo, a UConn Health Center nurse who is a lactation consultant and specializes in helping mothers establish breast-feeding relationships with their children even before birth, said many babies require formula. “I do want to ensure that parents are obtaining safe food for their infants,” she said. “We will advise against making your own formula at home.”

Parents should also avoid diluting formula with water in attempt to stretch supplies.

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT

The Associated Press contributed to this report.