The Biden administration Department of Justice (DOJ) has launched an investigation of Abbott Laboratories regarding the closing of its production facility in Sturgis, Michigan, last year and the accompanying baby formula shortage that hit the United States. The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that the consumer protection division of the DOJ is considering the inquiry a criminal matter, although it also has civil jurisdiction.
A spokesperson for Abbott told reporters the company had received notice of the investigation from the DOJ and is cooperating fully.
DOJ opens criminal investigation into Abbott over formula shortage – https://t.co/ugBCyysq3w
— The Washington Times (@WashTimes) January 21, 2023
Abbott closed the Sturgis facility down last year immediately after a whistleblower alerted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that the plant was connected to a severe bacterial infection affecting several infants.
The DOJ investigated the whistleblower’s report and eventually entered into an agreement with Abbott that allowed the firm to reopen the production facility. However, the downtime complicated a baby formula shortage that had already affected many American families struggling to find food for their infant children.
The Biden administration responded to the crisis by flying shipments of baby formula from overseas supplies to mitigate the domestic shortage somewhat.
Seattle consumer protection attorney Bill Marler told the WSJ for its report that the DOJ has successfully prosecuted some misdemeanor cases against distributors of contaminated food, even when they could not prove defendant companies acted intentionally.
The FDA never published conclusive proof that the bacteria found in Abbott’s Sturgis plant was directly linked to the strains that caused the serious infant infections. The agency’s inspectors did find other significant health issues at the facility, however. The FDA found standing water, damaged containers and other problems that could present health hazards.
The plant ultimately remained closed from February through June last year. It only reopened when Abbott committed to several changes in production procedures to maintain better conditions and avoid future closures.
The original FDA whistleblower complaint arose out of alleged incidents of employee horseplay with a stun gun inside the facility. Several complaints were filed as a result of the allegations.
After the baby formula shortage rose to crisis levels, the Biden FDA was criticized for its slow response to the complaints when a timely investigation might have avoided the later shutdown. The FDA admitted that its top food safety officer was only made aware of the existence of the whistleblower reports several months after they were submitted.