State and local providers of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are at the forefront of responding to the recent recall of powder infant formula manufactured at Abbott Nutrition’s facility in Sturgis, Michigan. Last Thursday, an ongoing investigation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found Cronobacter sakazakii at the Abbott manufacturing facility, indicating that product may have been contaminated. FDA continues to investigate four consumer complaints of Cronobacter and Salmonella infections that have resulted in infant hospitalizations, with Cronobacter possibly having contributed to an infant's death in one case.
“The safety and ongoing nutrition needs of infants must be the paramount concern throughout this recall. Swift action by USDA and WIC agencies, quickly communicated to the retail grocery community and other industry partners, ensures that WIC families can and should be treated the same as other shoppers navigating the recall of Abbott products,” said Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association (NWA).
“This recall is unlike any other, coming on the heels of distribution challenges that recently left too many stores without an adequate stock of infant formula. All elements of the supply chain must be vigilant to ensure the availability of adequate options for WIC families in the months ahead, a necessary step to safeguard against risky practices that jeopardize the health of infants – including using recalled cans of formula, diluting infant formula, or making homemade infant formula. WIC will continue to work with federal agencies and private-sector partners to keep the nutrition needs of infants front-and-center.”
WIC is the nation’s leading breastfeeding promotion program, but when new parents are unable to or choose not to breastfeed, WIC ensures that families have access to infant formula without significant cost. Since 1989, State WIC Agencies have been required to enter sole-source contracts for infant formula. Under these contracts, the over 1.2 million infants served by WIC are limited to specific brands of “contract formula” that are eligible for discounted rebates from infant formula manufacturers, reducing overall program costs. Abbott Nutrition contracts with the majority of State WIC Agencies.
Over the weekend, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued waivers to 48 State WIC Agencies that will facilitate the immediate and longer-term response to infant formula shortages stemming from the Abbott recall. State WIC Agencies are now empowered to permit vendor exchanges consistent with store policies, allow for larger infant formula container sizes, and waive medical documentation for certain substitutions. Medical documentation will still be required for infants on Food Package III, who require specialty formulas. These waivers ensure that retail grocery stores can apply the same return or exchange policy for recalled infant formula products to both WIC and non-WIC shoppers. State WIC Agencies are also adding additional substitution options so that WIC shoppers can, in the near term, purchase other infant formula products.
Identifying Recalled Infant Formula Products
FDA is alerting consumers to avoid purchasing and using powder infant formula manufactured at Abbott’s facility in Sturgis, Michigan. This is a targeted recall and does not affect all Abbott products, with FDA cautioning that products outside of the recall – including liquid formula products or ready-to-feed formulas – remain safe to use. As part of the recall, FDA is advising consumers not to use Similac, Alimentum, or EleCare powder infant formulas if the following is included in the product’s lot number:
Please find additional resources, including graphics that can be shared on social media, on NWA’s website here. Abbott has also developed a web-based tool to determine if the consumer’s product was included in this recall. Consumers can click here to check their product’s lot number, located at the bottom of their product. If a purchased can is eligible for the recall, preserve the can and produce it at a grocery store for an exchange. All shoppers – including WIC shoppers – should rely on retail grocery stores to manage the exchange.
Safeguarding Infant Health during the Recall
The recall is an important measure to safeguard infants from exposure to Cronobacter and Salmonella, bacteria that could impact infant health and development. Cronobacter can cause life-threatening infections like sepsis or meningitis, with symptoms including poor feeding, irritability, temperature changes, jaundice, grunting breaths, and abnormal movements. Salmonella are a group of bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal illness and symptoms like diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. Parents and caregivers of infants who have used recalled infant formula products and have concerns about the health of their child should contact the child’s healthcare provider.
In the absence of recalled infant formula products, medical providers recommend that families turn to other regulated infant formulas. FDA cautions that other options – such as homemade infant formulas – are prone to serious error and could result in harm to infants. Even a few weeks of inadequate infant nutrition could have lifelong impacts on a child’s development or result in infant death. The American Academy of Pediatrics also cautions against homemade infant formulas. While human breastmilk contains all the nutrients in the exact amounts that infants need, and regulated infant formula can provide excellent nutrition when families can’t or choose not to breastfeed, homemade infant formula and formula dilution practices are dangerous for the health of babies. NWA recommends that WIC providers share this guidance with participants and amplify this message on social media in the weeks ahead to counsel families on appropriate options amid the Abbott formula recall.
Additionally, if families need infant formula immediately due to limited or lack of stock in grocery stores, food banks are another possible option. Feeding America has a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs across the country. Many Feeding America network food banks provide free baby food, formula, and non-food staples such as diapers, toilet paper, and more. Click here to locate the closest Feeding America food bank near you.
If you have further questions about the Abbott infant formula recall, please reach out to Darlena Birch, NWA’s Senior Manager of Public Health Nutrition, at firstname.lastname@example.org.