MichMash: What was behind the baby formula shortage?
A baby formula shortage recently rocked the United States… and now we’re starting to get a wider picture of what really happened. As part of the weekly series MichMash, WDET’s Cheyna Roth chats with Detroit News reporter Kayla Ruble about the chaos at a Michigan formula factory.
Cheyna Roth: This is MishMash, a weekly conversation where we try to unjumble an important and sometimes under the radar statewide issue that affects you. I'm Cheyna Roth and I'm joined this week by Kayla Ruble, reporter for the Detroit News. Welcome, Kayla
Kayla Ruble: Hi, Cheyna, how are you?
CR: It's so great to have you here because you have an amazing new piece out called “How stun gun use at Michigan baby formula plant led to a nationwide recall” - in case you missed it, that is a piece delving into what happened at the Abbott baby formula plant in Sturgis, Michigan and your reporting involved reading more than 650 pages of Michigan, Occupational Safety and Health Administration documents, which is an incredible lift, and in it you painted a picture of the almost yearlong mission by an Abbott whistleblower to warn government agencies about problems at the facility, including various safety violations. You wrote, quote, Abbott nutrition is plant had lax cleaning procedures, untested baby formula was sent to store shelves after the discovery of harmful microorganisms, and a bottle labeling machine in the factory frequently failed causing some products to become untraceable in the event of a recall according to the fired employee’s complaint sent to the FDA. And that is just one part of some of the various complaints that were alleged against the facility. So given the serious nature of this, we're talking about formula going into infants and children, why did it take so long for state or federal authorities to step in here?
KR: Yeah, I think that's sort of one of the big questions of this story. I think every story like this sort of has the like who knew what when? And, you know, when did people choose to act or not act? And who is learning to what? I think, in this case, that's like a great, you know, one of the really big questions is: Could some of these government agencies have acted differently? Should they have…Did they have enough information to understand what was going on at this plant before, you know, babies got potentially sickened by this formula? And I think we don't really have an answer to that. I think the FDA, you know, was sent some of these products safety documents directly. And I don't know that there has been sort of proper accounting for that. I think that's something we're definitely still looking into.
CR: In the spring, there was a nationwide baby formula shortage and the Abbott plant is just one plant, but you said that it contributed to that shortage. Can you explain how?
KR: Yes. So the baby for me on the market is super concentrated. There's only a few companies that produce baby formula and most baby formula, or close to most baby formula, is sold through women, infants and children…sort of a program for low income mothers and children in states across the U.S., where women can buy and families or whoever can buy sort of discounted formula and Abbott is one of the biggest contractors for that. And most of that product is made by Abbott and a lot of it is made at the service facility, especially specialty formula, it’s specifically a plant for. So if you have allergies to certain things and there are certain formulas that you need, that's one of the places where the shortage started was in the specialty formulas. And then I think in the spring you sort of saw that panic buying of “oh, my gosh, all formulas are on a shortage”. But really it was the specialty formula and then the formula that was provided for the women, infants and children program where the big issue was.
CR: Kayla Ruble is a reporter for the Detroit News. Thank you so much for joining me here today. On MishMash.
KR: Thank you so much for having me.
WDET’s Cheyna Roth hosts the weekly series MichMash. You can hear more of her conversation with Detroit News reporter Kayla Ruble … Just by searching for M-I-C-H-M-A-S-H wherever podcasts are available.