October 12, 2022

Warren Calls Out Abbott’s Coverup of Potentially Contaminated Infant Formula

Abbott Used Scorched Earth Legal Tactics and Non-Disclosure Agreements to Make Impacted Families Stay Silent

“Even as your company continued attacking families in court and cutting corners on equipment and safety, barreling towards the crisis that has harmed infants, children, and adults across the country, you were raking in record profits.”

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington D.C. – U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sent a letter to Abbott Laboratories, calling out the company for avoiding disclosure and accountability for infant formula potentially contaminated with Cronobacter. Investigations have revealed that Abbott used “scorched earth” legal tactics and non-disclosure agreements to get impacted families to stay silent and avoid accountability. Senator Warren is asking Abbott for information on all litigation and secret settlements related to the alleged spread of Cronobacter in Abbott’s formula. 

“New reports indicate that Abbott Nutrition was aware of [risks of unsafe products] for decades, and that the company worked to cover up the consequences by ‘deploying scorched earth legal tactics’ to ‘grind down – and in some cases attack’ families seeking compensation for the harm caused and using legal settlements to force impacted families to stay silent. It is deeply troubling that Abbott appears to have been using abusive legal tactics and non-disclosure agreements to avoid accountability for the health and safety risks from its unsafe products,” wrote Senator Warren.

As early as 2003, Abbott representatives acknowledged that Cronobacter was “a little bit more ubiquitous” in powdered infant formula than previously known. Despite an outbreak in 2011 and several lawsuits against Abbott alleging that its formula contained Cronobacter, information on the health threats failed to reach many new parents, and Abbott continued to cut corners and operate under lax safety measures. Numerous whistleblower complaints detail a broader strategy to cover up inadequate safety practices – including falsifying records regarding testing, expiration dates, and maintenance records.

New reporting found that Abbott used aggressive legal tactics and settlements that required families to keep quiet – limiting public knowledge about the potential risks and shielding the company from scrutiny: 

  • Abbott brought “the resources and tactics of Big Law” against “poor families and their overwhelmed lawyers,” using aggressive tactics in a case that one judge called “the worst by a factor of 10.”
  • Following a “seven-year legal battle” for one family whose infant suffered “debilitating brain damage,” Abbott successfully sought a court order sealing trial testimony and evidence regarding testing and food safety protocols in its Sturgis, Michigan plant – seven years before consumption of unsafe formula resulted in the deaths of several infants and a nationwide infant formula shortage.
  • Between September 2019 and September 2021, Abbott found Cronobacter in five environmental samples in this same plant.
  •  In the injunction filed against Abbott in May 2022, the Department of Justice alleged “ongoing inadequacies in manufacturing conditions and practices.”
  • A judge who oversaw a 2013 Cronobacter case against Abbott argued that Abbott’s court victories directly fed into this cover-up, noting that a large verdict would have generated “national publicity” about Cronobacter, alerting parents across the country to the danger.

Given Abbott’s history of covering up public health risks and its role in the infant formula crisis, Senator Warren is calling on Abbott to answer a set of questions related to litigation alleging the spread of Cronobacter in its infant formula and a list of all settlements related to this by October 26, 2022.

Senator Warren has consistently held Abbott Laboratories accountable for their actions leading to the 2022 formula contaminations and infant formula shortage: 

  • On June 21, 2022, Senator Warren sent a letter to the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, expressing skepticism about a bid from a private equity firm to acquire the Enfamil formula manufacturing arm of Reckitt Benckiser Group during the infant formula shortage 
  • On May 18, 2022, Senator Warren and Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Abbot Laboratories CEO questioning years of failures leading to the infant formula shortage.
  • On May 17, 2022, Senator Warren and the Massachusetts delegation sent a letter to Abbott requesting information on their plans to replenish the infant formula supply in Massachusetts.
  • On May 13, 2022, Senator Warren joined colleagues in a letter to the Infant Nutrition Council of America to push for member organizations to step up manufacturing and end the shortage.
  • On May 13, 2022, Senator Warren joined colleagues in a letter to the Department of Agriculture urging the agency to address extremely high levels of corporate consolidation in the infant formula marketplace.