Business & Economy

Vermont hit especially hard by infant formula shortage due to state contract

Abbott Laboratories, whose plant was shut down by the Food and Drug Administration, was the biggest supplier of formula to Vermont’s Women, Infants and Children program. Wikimedia Commons file photo

Vermont has been hit especially hard by a nationwide infant formula shortage because of problems with the main supplier for its Women, Infants and Children program.

“The current shortage is really devastating because we’re relying on product coming from other parts of the world,” said Karen Flynn, director of Vermont’s program.

Run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Women, Infants and Children program — commonly known as WIC — serves pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women, infants and children up to 5 years old who are at nutritional risk. The program provides healthy, nutritious foods such as low-fat milk, eggs and cheese, as well as infant formula.

Abbott Laboratories has the contract to be the primary provider of infant formula issued through the Vermont WIC program. However, a February shutdown at an Abbott plant in Michigan and a recall of products made there resulted in the nationwide shortage of infant formula, after several babies who had consumed formula made there fell sick and two died

Court records reveal that U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors found a lethal bacteria, cronobacter, in the plant in February, and subsequently in two batches of formula produced at the plant in 2019 and 2020. 

Abbott has said there is no evidence linking the infant illnesses to the formula. Since the shutdown, the company has been shipping formula into the United States from Ireland.

The Food and Drug Administration said Monday it reached an agreement with Abbott on steps that will allow the plant to reopen in the next few weeks, and Flynn expects the supply chain to recover within six to eight weeks.

In the meantime, Flynn said, the Women, Infants and Children program has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to broaden the list of products families can buy with their WIC-provided electronic payment cards when they go to the store. 

“There’s still a lot of time before we get to the other side of this,” Flynn said. 

With the formula shortage, WIC Vermont is working closely with families who want to breastfeed, she said. Vermont has a high rate of women who breastfeed. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of babies born in 2017, 90.2% of Vermont infants were breastfed at some point. Vermont ranked tenth in the nation for breastfeeding, behind Minnesota, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Alaska, Utah, Virginia and California.

Flynn said her staff is encouraging pregnant mothers to consider breastfeeding and is providing access to pumps and a peer counselor or lactation management services. 

Flynn said Vermont WIC serves about 11,000 people and between 8,000 and 9,000 families.

While the formula shortage is widespread, some retailers around the state still have stock, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Tuesday at Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly press conference. 

“Everyone should be aware that small stores and some pharmacies may have adequate formula supplies if they can’t find it in some of the larger supermarkets they’ve been searching in,” Levine said.

Families should not substitute cow’s milk, goat’s milk, or plant milk for infant formula, he added, nor should they water down infant formula or make their own formula. Levine advised ordering only from well-recognized distributors and pharmacies. 

He advised people to ask their pediatrician for free samples or suggestions for a formula similar to the one they use. 

Scott said his administration is putting together an inventory of places that have formula, and urged parents to call the governor’s office at 802-828-3333 if they are experiencing difficulty finding supplies.

Another major formula manufacturer, Perrigo, has had a plant in Georgia, Vermont, for about 10 years. In 2020, it announced plans to expand the facility, which employs hundreds of people. 

In 2013, the company said the Georgia plant was the largest manufacturer of store-brand infant formula in the world. 

Perrigo did not respond to requests for interviews. The company’s chief executive, Murray Kessler, told Reuters last week that the Vermont plant was operating at 115% capacity to help meet demand.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect phone number for the governor's office.

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Fred Thys

About Fred

Fred Thys covers business and the economy for VTDigger. He is originally from Bethesda, Maryland, and graduated from Williams College with a degree in political science. He is the recipient of the Radio, Television, and Digital News Association's Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting and for Enterprise Reporting. Fred has worked at The Journal of Commerce, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, NBC News, and WBUR, and has written for Le Matin, The Dallas Morning News, and The American Homefront Project.

Email: [email protected]

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