Similac: Case Study Of (Another) Botched Recall

September 23, 2010

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[Note: I’m not going to let this become a breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding debate, and comments of that nature will be deleted.  That topic is worth discussing, but it’s not germane to the focus of this article.]

Abbot, makes of the popular Similac brand of infant formula, are recalling 5 million containers of its product.  The recall is tied to the presence in a beetle that can result in irritation to the gastrointestinal tract of infants, causing them to lose their appetite.

I received a call in the early morning from my son’s day care center, letting us know that his container of Similac was among the lots getting recalled.  I set out on a search for a replacement can from a non-affected lot.

I was great annoyed to see that every store I went to (6) had simply yanked ALL containers of Similac from the shelves instead of actually checking to see if the product was among the recalled units.  Eventually, I found a box of “single serving” packets (nt included in the recall) and bout them.  They are, of course, quite a bit more expensive per ounce than the larger containers.

It annoyed me that stores were taking the easy way out.  It this was a product like, say, pretzels or peanuts, I wouldn’t have a concern with such a slash-and-burn approach.  Infant formula is a bit different.  It is staple of the infant’s diet, and many infants can be quite brand loyal, refusing to drink a different brand.  This can be a real problem, as you can’t really reason with the infant to get them to drink.

The main annoyance, though, was at Abbot’s response to the recall.  They posted information on their web site, including a place where you could type in the lot numbers from your containers in oder to determine if they were in the recall.  Unfortunately, the site was completely down last night, and only partially functional this morning.  Why?  No doubt because of heavy volume.

This is not the first time that a manufacturer’s web site has succumbed to heavy traffic in the aftermath of a recall.  The same thing happened when some formulations of Tylenol were recalled a while ago.

It’s almost as if companies are under the impression that it’s not possible to quickly add more capacity to their web servers.  That’s not true, of course.  There are a multitude of companies that would gladly rent them the hardware necessary to handle spikes in volume.  It it quite common for companies to do this when they anticipate surges in traffic – it’s much cheaper than permanently upgrading their infrastructure.

I’m not sure why we have to go down this road every time there is a major recall.  Perhaps the Consumer Product Safety Commission could even have information about the recall on their own site, and have a deal with the web hosting provider to rent extra capacity when the need arises – they could then bill the manufacturer at a set rate (in theory, they could get a better deal from the web hosting companies by offering repeat business).

I’m not sure what the exact answer to these problems are, but things MUST get better.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kosmo
    Sep 23, 2010 @ 15:06:18

    And now, finally, Abbott realized the value of posting a comprehensive list of affected lots in PDF format (since the lookup function was experiencing problems. Huh? Why not do this immediately – since people go email this to friends and actually take load load away from your web server?


  2. Squeaky
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 08:29:08

    I would venture to guess that someone who had NO idea how much parents care about this made the initial call.

    Remember when you didn’t have kids? Nothing related to parenthood clicked. This person lacked that experience therefore lacks all “paretnal” common sense—in my opinion of course.



  3. Martin Kelly
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 08:56:33

    My brother use to work for Abbot Labs in Austin, Texas. You would not believe how hard it is to do a recall. They have to have all of the information published within 24 hours of any discovery. These guys are chemists with a very small IT support, so when something like this happens they are concerned mostly with not being shut down by the government. I doubt that they will ever handle one properly.

    It is kind of funny that I just had to do some training on Lean Production. The article that I read commented on Lean Consumpiton, taking into account the cost of buying a product for a consumer. Not just the price, but the convienience, time used and percieved benifit of that time spent.

    One of the benifits of having a reletive working there is that we go Simalac and Infamil for free. Anything that does not fit on a pallet is up for grabs by employees. So at the end of a run they only have a partial pallet, all of the boxes on that pallet are available. This is so that they can identify all lots that might be affected by a recall like they just had, no mixing of lots makes it easier.

    I hope your little guy didn’t feel bad.


  4. kosmo
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 10:23:22

    Oh, I’m sure there’s a ton that goes into a recall, and I’m not just pointing the finger at Abbott. All companies fail to scale their web servers to handle the traffic. There are lot of companies that can quickly make capacity available.

    Or even outsource all of the IT tasks related to the recall. Hand off the file of affected lots and details to a trusted third party and have them created the lookup tools (although, honestly, this would just be a very simple SQL statement), handing the scaling of servers, etc. Pricey to do this? Sure. But related to the cost of the recall, not a huge amount. And having a non-functional site probably costs you more in lost future sales than the cost of getting it done right up front.

    Seriously, I think there’s a market for an IT shop that would specialize in this. The work isn’t overly complex – the main wrinkle is that you’re under a tight deadline. The exact same technical issues come up time and time again. Something that a manufacturer might not think of (such as publishing the PDF of lot numbers immediately, rather than later) would be old hat to the specialty company.


  5. kosmo
    Sep 24, 2010 @ 10:29:16

    Oh, and due to the scarcity of Similac, we decided to try to switch over to Target brand to see how our guy would handle the switch. Not surprisingly, it hasn’t been an issue. The kid does not have a discriminating palate – he also likes any and all baby foods we have tried. The major issue seemed to be that the affected formula could cause lack of appetite – which he wasn’t exhibiting (I suspect that it take a lot for him to lose his appetite).

    If this had happened when our daughter was a baby, I’m not sure she would have made the switch without problems. Not nearly the eater that he is (and still not).

    Unfortunately for Abbott, I suspect that this is going to be common. It’s not like you can just wait it out, like you could if it was pretzels. You either need to buy the pricier types of Similac (if they are available) or make a switch. And if the kid handles the switch, you’re probably not going to bother to switch back later.


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