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Questions remain in baby formula recall

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF/CONSUMER REPORTS) — A recent big recall of infant formula is raising new questions about how these products are regulated — and more importantly their safety.

If you’re a parent with a newborn that is drinking this formula, you expect it to be safe. Federal regulators and inspectors are supposed to make sure it is.

But here’s the thing — the manufacturing plant that produced that baby formula had a long history of safety violations. Yet it was allowed to stay open.

It was only after a baby died that the company finally issued a recall for the formula. Now some are asking, why did it take so long?

If you’re a parent shopping for baby formula, you might be noticing nearly empty store shelves or signs maxing out how much you can buy.

“Formula right now is hard to find because of recalls by Abbott Nutrition of its Similac, Alimentum, and EleCare powdered Infant Formula,” said Ryan Felton, Consumer Reports investigative reporter.

The recalls come after at least two infant deaths and several illnesses were potentially tied to formula. The cases involved extremely dangerous bacteria called Cronobacter sakazakii and Salmonella Newport.

“Cronobacter bacteria is extremely deadly with a mortality rate as high as 80% in infants,” Felton said.

But shockingly, a Consumer Reports investigation found that the Food and Drug Administration knew about problems at the Abbott plant in Michigan back in September, where the recalled products were manufactured.

“The FDA didn’t warn consumers about Abbott’s infant formula until it conducted a follow-up inspection last month. And we still don’t know why,” Felton said.

As a result, there are now serious questions being raised by members of Congress about the agency’s ability to regulate the infant formula marketplace.

Consumer Reports Director of Food Policy, Brian Ronholm, has questions too.

“I think what’s especially disturbing is that the FDA hasn’t been forthcoming. So ultimately it’s not surprising that it would get the attention of a key lawmaker in congress who would try and set up some sort of investigation to scrutinize the agency’s actions,” Ronholm said.

The FDA has so far declined to answer questions from Consumer Reports about why an inspector was at the facility last fall, and what they knew at the time.

After the second recall, Abbott said, “this case is under investigation, and at this time the cause of the infant’s Cronobacter sakazakii infection has not been determined.”

Abbott has not made a full list of recalled products available to the public. Consumers will need to use a lookup tool on the company’s website to find out if they have a product that is part of the recall.

If you bought any of the recalled infant formulas with SNAP benefits, you now may be able to exchange them for products not typically covered by the program. If you want to know more about the recall and the products covered, the manufacturer has set up a website for more information.