Cavan plant faces months on call to produce emergency US infant formula supplies

Abbott does not expect to get US stores fully stocked from shuttered plant until late July

Abbott's Cavan milk powder plant will be expected to provide emergency infant formula supplies for the US market until at least mid-summer, it has emerged.

The Cootehill plant has been ramping up production of formula for daily flights from Ireland to cover the American market after a voluntary product recall and plant shutdown there left store shelves empty and parents in distress.

The milk formula crisis has now become a headline national political issue in Washington DC. Democrats are scrambling to address the problem as Republicans add it to their election-year criticisms of the Biden administration.

On Friday, the House of Representatives oversight committee said it plans to investigate the four largest manufacturers of baby formula – including another Irish-domiciled business, Perrigo – and seek answers on how to ramp up production amid a nationwide shortage, with a hearing scheduled for May 25th.


"The infant formula shortage is a crisis for American families," the committee said in a Twitter post. Fewer than half of babies born in the United States were exclusively breastfed through their first three months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2020 Breastfeeding Report Card showed.

House majority leader Steny Hoyer called the shortage "a real problem and we're hearing from a lot of people on this".

President Joe Biden met with executives from infant formula manufacturers and retailers on Thursday, pressing them to do everything possible to get families access.

A late addition to the US president’s schedule, it underscored the extent to which the predicament has become a political liability. US media have carried stories this week highlighting the plight of anguished parents who have taken to rationing their children’s food and spending hours on the hunt for scarce cans of specialty formula.

Supply chain

Abbott turned to its Cavan plant to backfill for the shuttered US plant because it is registered with and approved by the US regulator, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It has been reported that the company will double its exports of formula from Ireland this year.

Stocks of baby formula in the US are low in part because of ongoing supply chain issues attributed to the pandemic, but the problem was exacerbated by the Food and Drug Administration’s closing an Abbott Nutrition facility in February after several children became sick with bacterial infections potentially related to its Similac, Alimentum and EleCare formulas.

As of the end of last week, 43 per cent of formula products were out of stock nationwide. Abbott is the largest player in the US market, with market share of about 42 per cent.

The FDA has said it is working with Abbott and other manufacturers to alleviate supply issues but that several companies are at or over capacity. The shortage has now forced retailers across the United States to ration supplies.

Resuming production

Abbott now says it could restart production of infant formula at its troubled Michigan facility within two weeks. It said it would start a phased resumption of selected product lines once it receives the go-ahead from the FDA.

However, even when production is resumed, it will take six to eight weeks before the product returns to shelves. That means the company will be relying on the Cootehill plant to do a lot of the heavy lifting in supplying the market until the end of July.

It is not clear how long after that the Cavan plant will be required to supplement US supplies. It normally focuses on supplying Abbot’s markets outside the US.

Child health experts in the US have taken to warning parents not to resort to online recipes for homemade infant formula, using anything from powdered goat’s milk to raw cow’s milk.

But paediatricians warn that do-it-yourself baby formulas carry significant health risks. "Homemade formula is dangerous for babies," said Dr Katie Lockwood, of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Primary Care.

"The nutrients in homemade formulas are inadequate in terms of the critical components babies need, especially protein and minerals," said Dr Steven Abrams, a spokesman for the American Academy of Paediatrics, which has "strongly" advised against homemade formulas. – Additional reporting Reuters/Bloomberg/ New York Times

Dominic Coyle

Dominic Coyle

Dominic Coyle is Deputy Business Editor of The Irish Times