Is It Safe to Drink Recalled Baby Formula? Three Experts Weigh In
For months, parents have been struggling to buy baby formula—thanks, in part, to supply chain issues, labor shortages, and a nationwide formula recall. In February 2022, Abbott Nutrition voluntarily recalled four formula brands—Similac, Similac PM, Alimentum, and EleCare—that were linked to linked to bacterial contamination in infants. Four infants became ill and two died after consuming the contaminated formula. Abbott Nutrition's Sturgis, Michigan, facility closed down (and remains closed), which is contributing to supply issues across the country.
In an effort to relieve the burden of the shortage, Abbott received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to release some of its stockpiled formula "to individuals needing urgent, life-sustaining supplies," according to the organization. The only catch? The formula was produced in the same facility as the recalled products.
Naturally, parents are conflicted by this news. Many are desperate to find formula for their infants—especially those relying on specialty formula for digestive issues and food allergies. Millions of babies depend on formula as their main form of nutrition. On the other hand, they're worried about the safety risks of consuming "recalled" baby formula. So is it safe to consume formula from the Sturgis facility? What else do parents need to know? Here, several pediatricians and physicians to weigh-in.
How Will Releasing 'Recalled' Formula Help Curb the Shortage?
Abbott Nutrition is a major producer of baby formula. The company has numerous plants across the world designed to help meet the needs of consumers, parents, and babies. However, the closure of their Sturgis, Michigan, facility had far-reaching effects. Shelves across America have been bare for weeks, and consumers have also come across buying limits on formula. Those relying on speciality formula for allergies and digestive issues have been hit particularly hard.
The good news is the company behind the recall is being allowed to release some specialty products on a case-by-case basis. These items were not a part of the original recall; rather, they were produced in the same facility. However, the FDA warns they do come with risk.
"In these [certain] circumstances, the benefit of allowing caregivers, in consultation with their healthcare providers, to access these products may outweigh the potential risk of bacterial infection," reads a May 10 press release from the organization. "The FDA is working to ensure health care provider associations and stakeholders understand information about the risks and benefits of pursuing this product."
"We recognize that many consumers have been unable to access infant formula and critical medical foods they are accustomed to using and are frustrated by their inability to do so," adds FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, M.D. "We are doing everything in our power to ensure there is adequate product available where and when they need it."
Is It Safe to Drink 'Recalled' Baby Formula?
Of course, news that additional formula will soon be released is a relief to many parents and caregivers who are struggling to feed their children. However, many are asking if this formula is safe. Is it a good idea to use formula which came from a shuttered plant? The truth: It's risk assessment you need to make on an individual basis with the help of your doctor.
"Parents should be 100 percent sure the formula they have is not on the recall list and/or expired," says Sarah Adams, a pediatrician at Akron Children's Hospital in Akron, Ohio. "They should then contact their pediatrician with the exact information of the formula they have to verify if it is OK."
Dr. Alok Patel, a pediatric hospitalist, agrees. "People should not be feeding their babies expired formula, formula not FDA approved, or any formula that has been recalled or tampered with."
That said, it's important to note that the FDA is not advising parents to use recalled products. Affected containers of Similac, Alimentum, or EleCare should not be consumed. Parents and caregivers should also not dilute infant formula, or make homemade baby formula.
What Can Parents Do If They Can't Find Formula?
Even though it's not safe to dilute formula, make homemade formula, or to give toddler formula to infants, there are things you can do during the formula shortage, according to Gary Kirkilas, a pediatrician with Children's Phoenix.
- Change brands. For most babies, it is OK to switch to any available formula, including store brands. However, you will want to check with your child's doctor first, especially if they have any allergies. "While switching brands is usually OK, check with your pediatrician first if your baby is on a specialized formula," says Dr. Kirkilas. "Your pediatrician can recommend a suitable alternative."
- Check out social media groups. Social media is a great way to connect with others. It can also be very useful during the shortage. Through social media groups, you can connect with others to find formula, swap formula, and/or locate company's offering donor breast milk. Not sure where to begin? Local parent groups are a great place to start.
- Switch to cow's milk, if your child is old enough. If your child is at or near their first birthday, you should speak to their pediatrician. Your child may be able to switch to cow's milk, allowing you to bypass the shortage altogether. Cow's milk may also be given to children aged 6 months; however, this should only be done for a short period of time. "If your child is older than 6 months, you can feed them whole cow's milk for a short period of time until the shortage improves," says Dr. Kirkilas. "This should not become routine, however, and if you must do this, talk with your pediatrician about an iron supplement or iron-containing solid food, as cow's milk does not meet the baby's need for iron."
- Contact your local hospital and/or pediatrician. If you're in a desperate situation, you should contact an area hospital or your child's pediatrician. Other places to check? Women's shelters, food banks, and faith-based organizations that provide food assistance.
How Can Parents Order Abbott Formula?
If you are interested in ordering one of the formulas being released from Abbott, you will need to contact the company directly to request that the product be made available. This can be done by calling 1-800-881-0876. Always discuss with your pediatrician before ordering this formula.
When Will the Formula Shortage End?
Of course, the question on every parent's mind is "when will the formula shortage end?" and the truth is no one knows. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there's no timeline available. There are still too many unknowns. "As quickly as possible is our objective," said Psaki on May 12. "But it's going to be different store to store."
That said, Abbott announced that is will restart production at its Sturgis facility within two weeks. After production begins again, it will take "six to eight weeks before product is available on shelves," according to a press release from the company. Production would first begin for EleCare, Alimentum, and metabolic formulas. Similac and other formulas will be next.
"We hear you [parents]," Psaki added in her May 12 statement. "We want to do everything we can, and we're going to cut every element of red tape to help address this and make it better for you to get formula on the shelves."