“We know we let you down.”
The senior vice president of Abbott Nutrition — the manufacturer of infant formula whose plant closure amid a food safety investigation has left the country in dire straits with parents scrambling to find food for their babies — opened his testimony before a U.S. House panel Wednesday with that admission of guilt.
The day-long hearing before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce was billed as an investigation into the infant formula shortage and the reasons behind it.
During the first half of the hearing members of the U.S. House of Representatives grilled top administrators from the Food and Drug Administration about the shortage and the agency’s investigation into Abbott’s Sturgis, MI, manufacturing plant. FDA Commissioner Robert Califf told the panel that the agency could have done a better job managing its investigation. (See our related story for complete coverage.)
The second half of the day was reserved for three executives from the baby food industry with about half of the time devoted to the shortage and the other half focusing solely on Abbott’s food safety status.
Abbott was represented by its senior vice president Christopher Calamari. Two other infant formula manufacturers also had top executives on hand to answer questions: Scott Fitz, vice president of Gerber, and Robert Cleveland, senior vice president of Reckitt. Together the three companies represent about 90 percent of the infant formula market in the United States. Abbott alone has 40 percent of the market.
Members of the House subcommittee questioned all three men about the status of infant formula production with little in the way of solutions offered for resolving the current shortage. All of the companies are working to meet the need with ramped-up production at U.S. plants. They are also working with the federal government to increase imports of infant formula.
As pressing as the need for more infant formula is, the reason behind the shortage received as much time in the spotlight as the shortage itself. If Abbott had not had to close down its Sturgis, MI, plant because of food safety issues there would not be a shortage.
Calamari repeatedly told the House subcommittee that Abbott is doing everything possible to get its plant up and running. It was closed down in mid-February when the company initiated a massive recall. The recall came amid an FDA investigation into links to a cronobacter outbreak that saw at least four babies hospitalized. Two of them died.
Time after time Calamari said that Abbott is “taking steps” to resolve food safety problems and make sure they don’t reoccur. Time after time the House members asked what the company is doing.
When Committee Chair Rep. Diana DeGette, D-CO, asked the question Calamari gave his generalized answer. DeGettee called him on it, seeking more specifics. The Abbott senior vice president then ticked off a handful of actions including replacing floors, repairing the roof, and changing the way personnel move through the 700,000-square-foot manufacturing plant.
During her closing remarks, the subcommittee chair remarked on the bipartisan outrage about the situation at the Abbott plant. She told Calamari that his answers had been “too vague.”
Highlights from other subcommittee members’ questions about the food safety situation and the answers from Calamari follow.
Rep. H. Morgan Griffith, R-VA
The ranking member of the subcommittee told Calamari that Abbott has more than a problem with its roof and floors. He cited a whistleblower document that reported managers hiding information from top corporate management and said the company has a “culture problem” and asked, “have any heads rolled?”
Calamari responded by saying he didn’t think it was a culture problem and that just last week he visited the Sturgis, MI, plant and met with multiple generations of employees there who are committed to producing safe infant formula.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-WA
When the representative asked why there were cronobacter bacteria in the production facility Calamari said “it wasn’t in the production area,” adding that it is a naturally occurring bacteria. McMorris Rodgers asked Calamari what Abbott is doing to make sure its food safety issues do not recur he said the company “is committed to preventing future problems.”
Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-TX
Burgess wanted to know when Abbott management was made aware of the whistleblower document. Calamari said they didn’t know about it until it was made public by Congress in April. He also said he did not want to speak to points made in the document because it is the subject of an ongoing investigation.
Rep. Kathleen M. Rice, D-NY
Rice also asked Calamari about the whistleblower document, wanting to know what measures Abbott has in place for employees to raise food safety concerns. Calamari said there is an “independent” entity within the company that takes and reviews employee concerns and that it was the whistleblower’s choice to not use the system to report concerns. Rice also asked what the company plans to do to make sure employees feel comfortable reporting issues and Calamari said the company would “encourage them to speak up.”
Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky, D-IL
Telling Calamari that she is “livid” about the situation and that the inspection report about the Sturgis, MI, plant is “disgusting,” Schakowsky asked him if he would take personal responsibility; he said “yes.”
Rep. Gary J. Palmer, R-AL
Calamari told Palmer that he was not aware of problems at the plant until FDA inspected it earlier this year. When Palmer asked why problems had not been addressed earlier Calamari said the company is committed to safety.
Rep. Scott H. Peters, D-CA
Peters asked how much of Abbott’s resources go toward food safety and Calamari said “tens of millions of dollars.” Peters then asked if it should be more. Calamari said, “we are committed to doing what it takes.”
Rep. Kim Schrier, D-WA
Schrier wanted to know why Congress should trust Abbott to fix problems at the production plant, especially in light of the whistleblower accusations of falsified records. Calamari said, “we are aligned with the FDA” on plans to reopen the plant.
Learn more about Cronobacter sakazakii and other foodborne disease outbreaks in TAINTED. From Farm Gate to Dinner Plate, Fifty Years of Food Safety Failures, now available in digital, print and audiobook editions.