A sweeping recall of some of the biggest names in baby formula — including Similac — has been tied to a handful of hospitalizations, including two infant deaths. As POLITICO first reported, FDA, CDC and formula-maker Abbott were told in September about the first baby who got sick from Cronobacter sakazakii, a rare bacteria — several months before the massive product recall in mid-February. Lawmakers have begun to ask questions about the timeline of the recall.
In more than a decade covering food policy, I have covered countless outbreaks. I have never seen so many anecdotal and unconfirmed reports of illness that are not officially tied to the outbreak come out of the woodwork. It’s incredibly puzzling. Are parents wrongly blaming formula because they saw the recall? Or is the public health system missing cases? I am continuing to press health officials for answers.
It’s important to note that Abbott Nutrition, the formula maker, has maintained that its product has not been found to contain this rare bacteria as part of this outbreak: “The cases are under investigation and at this time the cause of the infants’ infections have not been determined,” the company said in a statement to POLITICO last week. “All infant formula products are tested for Cronobacter sakazakii, Salmonella and other pathogens and they must test negative before any product is released.” (FDA did find the bacteria in the Sturgis plant, however.)
This whole ordeal has me and a whole bunch of researchers revisiting a policy question that’s been kicked around in food safety circles for a long time: Should the government use social media as a tool to help detect or even solve foodborne illness outbreaks like this? Currently, CDC doesn’t, a spokesperson confirmed, but some local health departments have dabbled with using Yelp reviews, for example, to help detect outbreaks.