The company also expressed those sentiments through “videos and social media updates, congressional testimony, interactions with reporters” and other methods, according to the statement. You can read Abbott’s full statement below.
Abbott, with 2021 revenue of about $43 billion, is understandably reluctant to apologize for its safety procedures or the need for the recall. No connection has been established between a bacterial contamination of its products and the illnesses of five infants as of June 23, 2022, including three deaths.
Yet, Ford waited months to ask for forgiveness for the one thing he would apologize for, and eventually did: Abbott’s role in causing the nationwide shortage of formula.
Abbott reopened the facility on June 4, only to close it in the middle of the month because of flood and storm damage. It restarted production July 1.
Product recalls test the skills of many corporate functions, from manufacturing and logistics to leadership and legal. But accurate and sensitive communications to all stakeholders can minimize damage to a brand and sometimes even burnish a company’s reputation.
Ford, 47, has been CEO since March 2020, when he replaced longtime chief executive Miles White. He replaced White as chairman barely two months before the recall. But Ford is no newcomer to Abbott, which he joined in 1996, working his way up to become president and chief operating officer in 2018.
Here’s a timeline of Abbott’s response:
Feb. 17: At the recommendation of the FDA, the company announces a “voluntary recall” while defending the company’s safety procedures. Abbott shuts down its Sturgis, Mich., plant.
Toward the end of a 600-plus-word statement, an executive vice president is quoted as saying, “We deeply regret the concern and inconvenience this situation will cause parents, caregivers and health care professionals.”
By then, there had been three cases—including one death—possibly linked to formula contaminated by Cronobacter bacteria, which causes a rare but often fatal infection, according to the FDA. There was an additional case of Salmonella contamination, which caused illness.
Even though news reports about the scarcity of formula began surfacing in late January, the release did not acknowledge it. The shortage wasn’t hard to predict. Abbott reportedly controlled 40% of the formula market before the recall.
In the statement, Abbott says: “We did not know in February for how long the plant would be shut down.”
Feb. 28: The FDA announces a second death possibly related to Cronobacter, bringing the total number of cases to five. The recall is expanded. “Our heartfelt sympathies are with all the families affected,” a company spokeswoman tells The Wall Street Journal. The similar sentiment was expressed in other news reports and in the recall notice, which adds that the cause of the infection had not been determined.
March 22: Abbott addresses the formula shortage for the first time on its blog about the recall.
Without offering an apology, the company says, “We know that millions of parents and caregivers around the world count on our formulas to feed their babies and children and we are doing everything possible to address this situation.”
April 15: In a blog post about the company’s efforts to increase supply, Abbott says, “We know that our recent recall caused additional stress and anxiety in an already challenging situation of a global supply shortage.”
May 11: Abbott acknowledges the four cases of Cronobacter bacteria, including two infants who “tragically passed away,” in a lengthy blog post about the lack of connection between Abbott’s formula and those cases. The post uses a line later picked up by Ford’s opinion piece: “We know the recall has worsened an already existing industry-wide infant formula shortage in the U.S. and we’ve been seeing and hearing the stress and despair of parents who are facing empty shelves. We deeply regret the situation. . . .”
May 21: Ford’s piece is published in the Post, the hometown newspaper of Congress and the FDA.
“Our apology in the Washington Post was important for parents, caregivers, health care providers and policymakers to hear—but by no means was it the first or only apology we issued,” the statement says.
In his piece, Ford offers some well-worded expressions of empathy, acceptance of responsibility and promises to make changes, including:
• After denying any link between his products and the reported deaths and illnesses, he adds: “The FDA’s investigation did discover bacteria in our plant that we will not tolerate. I have high expectations of this company and we fell short of them.”
• A shortage of a specialized formula for infants with digestion problems has required that many babies get a doctor’s attention, he says, adding, “I will not mince words—this is tragic and heartbreaking, and it is consuming my thoughts and those of my colleagues.”
• “We are making significant investments to ensure this never happens again.”
• “These steps we’re taking won’t end the struggles of families today. Some solutions will take weeks, others will take longer, but we will not rest until it is done. I will not rest. I want everyone to trust us to do what is right and I know that must be earned back.”
May 25: An Abbott senior vice president testifies before a panel of the House Committee on Energy & Commerce, saying, “All of us at Abbott regret the stress that this shortage has caused for parents.”
After reading the apology, you’re left with only one question: What took so long?
Tom Corfman is an attorney and senior consultant with Ragan Consulting Group.