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Baby formula recall following infant deaths spotlights rare but dangerous bacterial infection

Four cases of Cronobacter sakazakii infection in infants have been linked to powdered formula from an Abbott Laboratories facility in Sturgis, Michigan.
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A recall of powdered baby formula from Abbott Laboratories is highlighting the danger of Cronobacter sakazakii, a bacterium that causes that causes rare but serious infections in infants.

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration announced it was investigating powdered formula linked to an Abbott facility in Sturgis, Michigan, following four reports that infants who had consumed it became seriously ill. Two of the infants have died. Abbott has issued a voluntary recall for some batches of its Similac, Alimentum and EleCare formulas.

Cronobacter is found naturally in the environment and can live in dry foods, including powdered formulas, powdered milk and starches, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can affect people of all ages, but it is especially dangerous in infants.

Cronobacter is rare but serious

In addition to the four Cronobacter reports, the FDA also found one case of salmonella in an infant in connection with the Abbott facility. The agency has advised consumers to avoid Abbott powdered formula if the first two digits of the product code on the bottom of the package are 22 through 37; if the code includes K8, SH or Z2; or if the expiration date is April 1, 2022, or later.

Early signs of Cronobacter infection in babies under 1 year old are fever, crying, low energy and poor feeding habits. The bacterium can get into their bloodstreams and cause meningitis.

In older people, Cronobacter can enter the urinary tract or cause problems in cuts, scrapes or places where people have had surgery, according to the CDC.

The agency typically gets just two to four reports of Cronobacter in infants a year, although it notes that infection rates are not well understood because Minnesota is the only state that requires its Health Department to be notified of cases. In Minnesota, Cronobacter infections in infants under 1 year old must be reported within one working day. The four recent Cronobacter cases were reported in Minnesota, Ohio and Texas.

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety lawyer, said thorough reporting of food-borne illnesses is important because it is a way to "count people who are sick and to see what the common denominator is between them."

"The more people who have their illness reported, the more likely it is you’ll figure out what the problem is sooner, so then you can get the product off the market so less people get sick," Marler said.

How to protect your baby

Abbott said in a statement that in its testing, no distributed product has tested positive for either Cronobacter or salmonella.

"Additionally, retained samples related to the three complaints for Cronobacter sakazakii tested negative for Cronobacter sakazakii," the company said. "And the retained sample related to the complaint for Salmonella Newport tested negative for Salmonella Newport."

Marler said concerned parents can protect their children from possible Cronobacter exposure by practicing good hygiene habits, like keeping bottles clean.

The CDC recommends that powdered formula containers be stored properly, with clean lids and scoops. For babies born prematurely or those who have weakened immune systems, parents should heat water that gets mixed with the powder to 158 degrees Fahrenheit, then let the mixture cool.

"This is a good reminder for parents to use good methods when feeding their kids infant formula," Marler said.