Baby formula is displayed at a news conference in Patchogue...

Baby formula is displayed at a news conference in Patchogue announcing a collection drive on Monday.  Credit: James Carbone

The White House announced an agreement with Abbott, the nation's largest formula maker, to reopen the largest domestic manufacturing plant of infant formula — a key step toward easing a nationwide shortage even as efforts were launched locally to address the growing crisis.

As the nationwide shortage reached emergency levels for many families, Suffolk County lawmakers joined one of the region's largest food banks for a major formula collection drive.

The local drive is spearheaded by Legis. Dominick Thorne (R-Patchogue) and Island Harvest Food Bank, which will distribute the formula to families in need. All 18 county lawmakers will place Island Harvest collection boxes in their district offices this week, officials said.

"We want to make sure every child is fed and that nobody goes to bed hungry," Thorne said at a news conference in Patchogue Monday. 

Abbott confirmed Monday it has agreed to restart production, under a consent degree, a binding legal agreement, with the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has been investigating safety problems at the Sturgis, Michigan, facility.

After production resumes, Abbott has said it will take at least eight weeks to begin shipping new product to stores.

Brian Deese, director of the White House's National Economic Council, said the FDA would also take steps Monday to allow more foreign imports of formula into the U.S. to address the urgent supply constraints.

A nationwide shortage of baby formula has parents of young children scrambling to find formula or, in some cases, using the dangerous practice of watering down formula to increase their supply. Credit: Newsday/James Carbone

The shortage is linked to a voluntary recall in February by Abbott that shuttered the company's Michigan plant, exacerbating ongoing supply chain disruptions among formula makers. 

The recall was triggered by illnesses reported in four babies who had consumed powdered formula from the plant. All four infants were hospitalized with a rare type of bacterial infection and two died.

Abbott has emphasized that its products have not been directly linked to the bacterial infections.

Across the country and throughout the region, consumers have reported limited or no supply of baby formula at grocery stores and pharmacies, with many large retailers placing tight limits on the number of bottles and containers that can be purchased during each visit.

"These are very stressful times for parents in need," said Randi Shubin Dresner, president and chief executive of Island Harvest in Suffolk, noting that some children with rare metabolic diseases require very specialized formula products. "Parents and caregivers just need to feed their babies. It's something we've all taken for granted for decades. When we needed formula you just went to the store and got it. These days it's just not the case."

Dawn Melchiona, director of infant/toddler services at Long Island Head Start, which supports 270 at-risk low-income children, said it's become increasingly difficult to provide formula to infants at their six child care centers and two family child care homes.

"Vendors do not have enough formula to fill our orders," she said.

Over the weekend, the White House — which has come under intense pressure to do more to ease the shortage of formula — offered formula manufacturers and retailers transportation and logistics support to boost production, including reaching out to their suppliers to encourage them to prioritize production and delivery of formula ingredients.

Several area lawmakers, including Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who are each running for governor, have urged Biden to invoke the Defense Production Act of 1950 to increase the supply of baby formula.

And House lawmakers are expected to vote on bills this week that would loosen the restrictions on the type of formula can be purchased with Women, Infant and Children [WIC] benefits and another allocating federal funds to purchase baby formula from Chile, Mexico, Ireland and the Netherlands.

Despite the federal and local efforts, Dresner said it could take several months before the shortage is rectified and the supply of baby formula returns to normal.

"This becomes a rolling problem," she said. "Once you start with a shortage, in order to catch up takes a very long time."

In the meantime, medical professionals Monday warned Long Island parents against diluting their formula, as babies cannot handle the water load, leading to potential kidney ailments, growth issues, vision and lung development and neological disorders.

"I know many parents are struggling and are at their wit's end of what to do to feed their babies but it's essential not to dilute formula," said Dr. Patricia Mele, director of perinatal-neonatal services at Peconic Bay Medical Center.

Mele also advised parents against attempting to make to make their own formula or purchasing formula from plants overseas that are not approved by the FDA.

Dr. Adrian Cohen, clinical director for the OB-GYN service line for the 10 maternity hospitals within Northwell Health, encouraged new mothers, whenever possible, to breastfeed their babies, particularly right after birth.

"Breast milk is made for individual babies," Cohen said. "It's medicine more than it is food."

With AP

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