We previously reported about the national baby formula shortage that began in February 2022 and lasted for several months, affecting countless infants, parents, and caregivers and intensifying distress amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, these supply chain disruptions were largely exacerbated by the novel coronavirus for numerous industries, including the food and infant care sectors, thereby further compounding the already precarious situation. As a result, these industry-wide shortages created disproportionately high costs for limited remaining supplies. This followed the economic downturn that led to the shortest U.S. recession on record, which lasted only two months, from March through April 2020.
Last year, Abbott Laboratories—a key player in the baby formula arena—made national headlines after it announced a massive recall of its powder formulas under commercial labels Similac, Alimentum, and EleCare after four infants contracted bacterial infections, which is believed to have contributed to the deaths of two of the patients. The recall was localized to production from Abbott’s plant in Sturgis, MI—coincidentally the largest baby formula manufacturing plant in the country, thus dealing a mighty blow to failing supply chains and weakening the faith of many Americans. Abbott has recently been under scrutiny as the case has evolved into a criminal investigation led by the Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch. According to their website, the Consumer Protection Branch is involved in investigating issues pertaining to the Food and Drug Administration, thus placing Abbott’s case within their jurisdiction. This comes after the Justice Department’s decision to allow Abbott to resume production in their Sturgis plant in May 2021.
National recalls are nothing new, especially with regard to child health. Lead paint recalls by major manufacturers are particularly well-known to many Americans and have been a chronic pain in the side of our country’s robust toy and clothing industry. With the rise of third-party distributors and individual sellers, it is harder than ever to ensure adequate quality control of products that make their way into kids’ hands.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit that champions consumer protection, released a report which found that recalled products are often still available for purchase for weeks, even years after they were meant to be taken out of retail spaces. In several cases, businesses sell these items to thrift shops and liquidation stores. This inevitably affects low-income populations, who are more likely to shop at these establishments. Many recalled products are often sold on secondary markets such as Facebook Marketplace and eBay, even though it is illegal to do so intentionally. Although large companies like Meta utilize extensive teams dedicated to enforcing guidelines that protect consumer safety, some recalled goods still fall through the cracks, thus calling for quicker identification and removal of such items.
For example, in 2009, Mattel recalled 1.5 million toys with high lead levels, with some toys comprising as much as 11 percent lead. That’s nearly 180 percent more than the maximum legal amount per national safety standards. According to the nonprofit Kids in Danger, children’s products are recalled often—sometimes more than twice a week. A more recent headline involves Fisher-Price’s 4.7 million unit recall on their Rock’ n Play Sleepers due to defective fail-safes that allowed infants to roll over onto their side or stomach, which can be deadly due to increased airway obstruction. While the original announcement occurred in 2019, a repeated recall occurred this past January following reports of 100 infant deaths within the past four years.
The FDA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) are the two main agencies that regulate and standardize products. Typically, the FDA sets legal limits for product consumption, and the CPSC moderates the import and distribution of said products through a comprehensive testing and certification process under standards set forth and regulated by Congress. These protocols and risk assessments are quite thorough; products only undergo recertification if any materials are changed. To bolster quality control measures, instituting mandated annual recertification efforts may be beneficial. Current laws permit imported component parts to be exempt from U.S. certification if they have already been subjected to foreign testing. However, since domestic guidelines may differ from those of other countries, materials that would be noncompliant under U.S. standards may go undetected via these provisions. Standardizing international guidelines would offer better surveillance of imports that could otherwise slip under the radar. While manufacturers may take it upon themselves to issue recalls, consumers should aim to remain vigilant and stay educated on the latest news about the items they purchase. Should consumers identify defects, reporting incidents in a timely fashion can attract more attention rapidly to launch an investigation if needed and accelerate national or localized recall efforts to better protect children across the country? Our shared duty is to hold companies responsible if they attempt to transgress safety guidelines that threaten the health of those we hold dear. After all, don’t our children deserve better?
Divya Srinivasan is an undergraduate student. Tejas Sekhar is a graduate student.