How does a product recover from new reports that it is perhaps -– perhaps -– responsible for causing the death of a 10-day-old infant? That’s a question facing Mead Johnson Nutrition’s Enfamil Newborn baby formula this morning after Wal-Mart and SuperValu (which owns Jewel, Shaws, Shop and Save, Acme, Farm Fresh, Shoppers and some Albertsons supermarkets around the country) pulled the product from its shelves following the death of a baby boy in Missouri from a rare bacterial infection, Cronobacter sakazakii, that he contracted after ingesting the formula.
Another baby who had been taking an unspecified brand of formula also became infected with the bacteria and has recovered, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services says in a statement on its website, according toBloomberg Businessweek’s Meg Tirrell and Michelle Fay Cortez. The second child lives in Illinois; the two incidents are apparently unrelated.
“As far as we know, there is no connection between Enfamil Newborn and this second case,” Mead Johnson spokesman Christopher Perille writes in an email. “Clearly, if this other case was connected to Enfamil Newborn, we would have received case information and been contacted for samples.”
The company also states that the batch of Enfamil Newborn formula in question tested negative for Cronobacter sakazakii before it was shipped. “Perille said all of the company’s infant formula products are put through a battery of tests as they are produced, packaged and sealed,” according to an Associated Press story carried by many media.
The retailers’ reaction in pulling the product is “highly unusual because there had been no determination by authorities that the formula was to blame for the child’s death, and neither the manufacturer nor federal officials had sought a recall,” writes William Neuman in the New York Times.
"We are not saying the product is unsafe, but we thought it best to remove it until we know more," says Wal-Mart spokeswoman Dianna Gee.
“Missouri and U.S. public health agencies are collecting several samples from powered infant formula from the infants’ homes, as well as samples from clothes and water,” write Tirrell and Cortez. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigates about four to six such cases a year. “Infections are not real common,” FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey tells them.
As someone who has been feeding Enfamil Newborn formula to his six-month-old granddaughter, I was drawn to the headlines this morning. A picture of the infant furnished by the funeral home to the AP and published on the New York Times website is, at the same time, heart–wrenching and a reminder of how fragile life is.
It’s hard to fault Wal-Mart and Supervalu, even if, as some stories imply, they are exercising an overabundance of caution. “Though it is ubiquitous in nature, only powdered infant formula and preparation equipment have been linked to C. sakazakii outbreaks among infants,” John Brooks wrote in Food Safety News last year.
At the same time, the folks (and shareholders) at Mead-Johnson, which may very well be blameless, are in an unfortunate situation.
“Shares of Mead Johnson fell $7.72, or 11%, to $68.76 in 4 p.m. trading on the New York Stock Exchange Thursday, report Ann Zimmerman and Karen Talley in the Wall Street Journal. “Mead's Enfamil accounted for 40% of the U.S. infant formula sales in 2008.... Infant formula products accounted for $1.6 billion of the company's $2.8 billion in sales during the first nine months of this year.”
One thing I learned from the news coverage this morning is that my shortcut of using warmish water from the tap rather than boiling and cooling the formula is a bad idea. Several news stories, and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services website, are emphasizing the World Health Organization’s recommendations for preparing formula which, unfortunately, is one of those documents that most consumers would find impenetrable. But perhaps the attention paid to these safety guidelines in the wake of Avery Cornett’s death will prevent another tragedy. There’s no other comfort to take from the story.