Baby food makers set to fend off swathes of lawsuits

This June 8, 2015 photo shows the logo for Enfamil, in Monroe, Mich.
This June 8, 2015 photo shows the logo for Enfamil, in Monroe, Mich. Copyright Tom Hawley/The Monroe News via AP
By Indrabati Lahiri
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Reckitt has said that baby formula manufacturers have faced several complaints in general, and it is not possible to tell which one of these relate solely to its own baby food arm.

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It looks like Reckitt’s baby formula saga is set to continue for a while. 

The company's Illinois-based unit was recently ordered by a jury to shell out a hefty $60 million (€55 million) payment to Jasmine Watson, the mother of a premature infant son who passed away following developing a bowel disease allegedly caused by baby formula Enfamil.

Enfamil, produced by Reckitt’s American infant formula arm Mead Johnson, is believed to cause necrotising enterocolitis (NEC) - the disease that Watson's son died from - which mainly affects premature babies and is fatal about 15% to 40% of the time. 

Moreover, Mead Johnson was also found to be negligent by not issuing a prior warning to consumers about the risks of NEC arising from its products.

However, Reckitt has strongly denied these accusations, doubling down on the safety of its baby food products. It has also said that individuals will continue to file cases against baby food manufacturers in general, and it is not possible to determine how many of these are against Mead Johnson in particular.

“While we continue to offer our deepest condolences to Ms. Watson, we strongly disagree with the jury’s decision to fault Mead Johnson and award damages,” the company said in a press release.“We continue to believe that the allegations from the plaintiff’s lawyers in this case were not supported by the science or experts in the medical community. This was underscored during the trial by a dozen neonatologists.”

“We are of course surprised and deeply disappointed with the verdict and will pursue all options to have it overturned,” it added.

Since the end of February, Reckitt’s shares have fallen over 21%, trading at €53.68 on Monday afternoon. Share prices were also further dampened by the company’s sales doing worse than expected in the fourth quarter of 2023.

Baby food lawsuits are on the rise

Apart from Mead Johnson, baby food lawsuits have been sharply increasing in the last few years. Most recently, manufacturers such as Gerber, Plum Organics, Sprout Foods, Hain Celestial Group, Nurture, Beech-Nut Nutrition and Walmart have come under fire for having alarmingly high levels of toxic heavy metals, such as arsenic, mercury and lead.

These have been linked to severe neurological damage, as well as the rise of conditions such as autism and ADHD.

These were mostly found in items such as crisped rice cereal, brown rice, rice puffs, rice teething rusks and biscuits, raisins, white rice, non-rice teething crackers, oat-ring cereal, rice cakes and granola bars with raisins.

Gerber’s Good Start formula has also been slammed for having the Cronobacter sakazakii bacterium, which can cause a high risk of meningitis and other severe infections, which can often be fatal.

“The unfortunate reality is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has left parents with the burden of researching every product they buy to ensure they are not inadvertently feeding their child arsenic, lead and other dangerous toxic metals,” baby food lawyer Pedram Esfandiary said in a post by his law firm, Wisner Baum.

“To date, the FDA has only enacted limits for heavy metals in infant rice cereal and juice, so parents are essentially on their own to figure out for themselves the risks associated with all other foods they give their children,” he added.

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