For the Mouths of Babes

By Reuvain Borchardt

Rabbi Moshe Elefant

Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO and executive rabbinic coordinator of OU Kosher, discusses how the baby-formula shortage has affected kosher families.

Tell us about how the baby formula shortage has affected the kosher consumer.

Our families have more children than most, so this baby-formula shortage affected our community significantly. What was most significant is that while there is a standard baby formula, there are also baby formulas for children who have digestive or metabolic issues that are not easily substituted. When the baby-formula shortage developed, that population was affected in an acute fashion.

The companies — primarily Abbott and Mead Johnson — have been kosher-certified by the OU for a long time. They have a close relationship with the OU, and are concerned about the kosher community. In addition to being concerned about the shortage of the baby formula that they provide to the general population, they were also most concerned to make sure that the formula that they get to substitute for the missing formula be kosher certified.

We obviously took this situation very seriously as well, knowing how critical baby formula is.

Once the shortage hit, the FDA, which had been reluctant to allow the import of baby formula that’s manufactured overseas — even by American companies — began allowing in the product from foreign countries. These companies immediately reached out to the OU to certify the facilities, so that this formula would be available to the kosher community as well.

What goes into getting these overseas plants certified kosher?

To certify a plant, we need to ensure that every ingredient is kosher —  and the suppliers have to be kosher, too. Even if they are using the same recipe overseas as they are here, they are using different suppliers. So we have to review every one of the ingredients and the suppliers of the ingredients to make sure it was properly kosher certified.

Do you believe the FDA had not allowed imported formula over concerns about safety, or was it protectionism?

I really have no idea.

How much of the baby formulas produced in the United States and around the world are kosher?

The vast majority produced in the United States are kosher, but not in the rest of the world. There are huge facilities in Africa that manufacture baby formulas that are not kosher-certified.

How much of the formula produced in the United States is chalav Yisrael?

It’s a tiny percentage of the dairy formulas. I think it’s only one product. I believe there is also a product made in Israel. But there are many formulas that are pareve, and most families that keep chalav Yisrael use the pareve product.

This shortage started when the FDA shuttered the Abbott plant in Sturgis, Michigan, over safety concerns.

Yes, that’s the largest baby formula factory in the country.

Did that plant export any of its product or was it all for domestic consumption? Was this shortage felt overseas as well?

It was primarily for domestic. But the shortage was felt overseas as well — though not as acutely — because the European plants started to divert product to the United States.

Partially empty baby-formula shelves. (Reuters/Brian Snyder/File)

That shuttered plant was allowed to reopen in June, but just a few days later it had to close for several weeks due to severe weather in the area that caused flooding. Are they running at full capacity?

Yes, the plant is now running at capacity, but it takes time to fill in the gaps in production from all the time it was shuttered.

Was U.S.-produced chalav Yisrael product all made at that plant?

Yes. The chalav Yisrael product in the U.S. that was available while the factory was shuttered was produced before the plant was closed in February.

I imagine that the kosher consumer is a very small percentage of the American consumer and even a smaller percentage of the world consumer. Why are these companies trying to get their product certified — is it significant enough for their bottom line, or is it for PR purposes or concern for our community?

I think they appreciate the kosher market. And when it comes to baby formula, we’re probably more significant than we are in other markets, because of our family sizes.

And I think this demonstrates the special relationship the companies have with the OU and the kosher market. They don’t take the attitude that “We are in distress and the kosher market isn’t important.” Rather, it’s, “Kosher has always been important. We have a relationship with the kosher market. And we’re not going to abandon them, even though this is a difficult situation for us, too.”

Is this similar to the Pesach Coke deal, where it’s probably not much of a boon for their business, but they believe it’s important to help a community with particular needs?

Yes, I think that’s a good comparison.

Has this new overseas kosher product started being imported already?

The Mexican product is coming in already. We just had a rabbi this week inspecting a factory in Spain; that product has not been imported yet. There’s also product in Singapore which, if it hasn’t started coming in already, it will be soon.

Is this overseas product dairy?

It is dairy, non-chalav Yisrael.

So the chalav Yisrael consumer will have to rely on product from the reopened Abbott factory and the product that comes in from Israel?


Do you expect that once the shortage ends, the FDA will continue to allow the imported product? Or are they going to ban it again? Have you been involved in any such discussions?

I can’t speak for the FDA. And this is not the sort of conversation that the OU would be involved with. The FDA is not consulting with the OU.

I will say that we know that the FDA is very aware of how serious the shortage is, how important an issue this is, and how important that is to the kosher market. They are taking that seriously.

We don’t see a serious need for us to be doing any lobbying because the companies are doing the lobbying.

At what point do you feel enough of this kosher product will be imported that the kosher consumer won’t have to worry anymore, “Where am I going to get my next container of formula?”

I think we’re getting close to that point.

To Read The Full Story

Are you already a subscriber?
Click to log in!