Still having trouble finding baby formula? You can thank, among other things, an incident over an alleged stun gun more than two years ago.
According to an account published in last week’s Detroit News, a report about a “possible weapon” in the quality services department at the Sturgis, Michigan, Abbott Laboratories touched off a whistleblower investigation that left the plant shut down, parents without formula for their children and Americans realizing just how fragile our supply chain is.
In May of 2020, the News reported, “the sound of an electric shock sizzled through the office space.”
The worker holding the device insisted it was a bug zapper before using it again, the News reported.
“It’s definitely a stun gun and not a bug zapper,” an Abbott employee said in internal communications reviewed by the News. Another employee who was in the room sent a letter to management warning about a “possible weapon” in the workplace.
“Since, whatever this is, is being played with openly, I am concerned someone is going to get hurt,” the email stated, according to the News.
The Detroit News article never establishes whether the device was, in fact, a stun gun. However, it details how — though the incident didn’t itself didn’t cause the plant shutdown and product recall that followed — it was a critical spark that set a chain of events into motion.
“The incident emboldened a whistleblower, a quality assurance specialist at the plant at the time, to come forward and confront supervisors at the Abbott’s Sturgis site over its safety,” the Detroit News noted.
Are America’s supply chains broken?
“It set off a series of events that led to several investigations and the company’s ultimate decision to shut down the facility for months and issue a nationwide recall of formula that is blamed for sickening infants after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against several of the plant’s products.”
First, the whistleblower went to his supervisors. When he felt they weren’t taking the matter seriously, according to the News, he complained directly to Abbott’s upper management at the company headquarters in Illinois in June of 2020.
The whistleblower was fired two months later for performance issues, according to Abbott’s account, as reported by the News.
He filed a complaint with the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or MIOSHA.
While MIOSHA initially dismissed the man’s complaint about workplace safety in June of 2021, according to the News, the whistleblower had sought protection through the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleging he “was fired for engaging in protected activity related to repeatedly raising or objecting to product safety issues,” according to the News.
In September of last year, he sent a “detailed accounting of alleged product safety issues” at the Sturgis facility in a letter to the Food and Drug Administration, according to the News.
The man alleged that “Abbott Nutrition’s plant had lax cleaning procedures, untested baby formula was sent to store shelves after the discovery of harmful micro-organisms 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,” the News noted.
In February of this year, the plant was shut down. Speaking before Congress in May, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said conditions at the plant were “egregiously unsanitary,” with bacteria growth in numerous sites in the facility and cracks in equipment used to manufacture the baby formula.
“Frankly, the inspection results were shocking,” Califf said, according to CNBC. “This is so far removed from my previous experience with the company that I am very concerned.”
The company recalled numerous products after the shutdown. In addition, four infants who were fed Abbott formula developed Cronobacter infections, two of whom died. The FDA couldn’t definitively link the illness or deaths to the Abbott plant, according to the Detroit News.
Still, Califf found the coincidence “highly unusual.”
Let’s not let the federal government off the hook here, though: Nationwide, 15,000 food plant inspections were missed by the FDA due to COVID lockdowns. Furthermore, while an infant formula shortage was being reported as early as January, nobody seemed ready to act until it became acute later in the spring. The closure of Abbott’s Sturgis plant for four months, however, is what turned a shortage into a crisis.
Not that President Joe Biden took any of the blame here: “If we’d been better mind readers, I guess we could have, but we moved as quickly as the problem became apparent to us,” he said in May.
Don’t expect things to get back to normal anytime soon, either.
According to CNBC, in the six months leading up to July 24, over 20 percent of formula products were out of stock. Califf said last month that the formula shortage “was a deficit that’s going to take a while to fix.”
And, thanks to American trade policy, experts say such a shortage could happen again sometime soon. Prior to the current shortage, it was illegal to import European baby formulas, as The New York Times reported in May 2021.
Because of the shortage, the foreign formula has been allowed for sale in the U.S., USA Today reported in July. Plans are in the works to allow those sales to continue but have not been finalized, the newspaper reported.
And the supply chain is clearly not strong.
“I’ve been looking at supply chains for the last two plus years…and I haven’t seen an industry this fragile,” said Scott Lincicome, director of general economics for the libertarian Cato Institute, in testimony before a Senate antitrust committee in June, according to Yahoo Finance.
“It is about a textbook case of what happens when you put walls around the country and block all the imports, and then have a government contractor as a monopsonist in the market… it’s a perfect storm for problems.”
It took the rippling ramifications from just a single stun gun report to reveal how shaky America’s supply chain is and how badly our federal government botched it when it intervened. Then again, the government also set us up for this with a protectionist trade policy and an FDA that wasn’t conducting the inspections it needed to during the pandemic.
If this is what one report of a “possible weapon” can unleash, Americans have every reason to be afraid and angry — and every reason to believe a crisis even more dire than the formula shortage is lurking somewhere around the corner.