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Opinion Our babies are dying. Where are the responsible adults?

Christopher Calamari of Abbott Laboratories speaks via video conference during a May 25 hearing in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg News)
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Our babies are dying. Where are the responsible adults?

On Tuesday, a monster armed with two AR-15-style rifles murdered 19 children and two teachers in a Texas elementary school. Yet the National Rifle Association still plans to open its annual meeting in Houston on Friday, showcasing “14 acres of the latest guns and gear” just a few hours from where the massacre took place. And Republican leaders — Donald Trump, Greg Abbott, Ted Cruz, Kristi Noem and others — are going ahead with their appearances at this orgy of weaponry.

The shooting was the 24th act of gun violence on America’s elementary and secondary school campuses so far in 2022, following 42 in 2021, according to a Post tally; more than 311,000 children attending 331 schools have been exposed to the horrors of gun violence since the Columbine massacre of 1999. It’s likely that passing and rigorously enforcing background checks and “red-flag” laws could make a dent in the killing of children, yet the gun lobby and its handmaidens in Congress continue to block even these broadly popular measures.

And it isn’t just about guns. Four infants have been sickened and two died after consuming formula produced by an Abbott facility in Sturgis, Mich. The Food and Drug Administration forced the facility’s closure after finding “shocking” violations of basic sanitation standards, setting off the nationwide formula shortage, threatening malnutrition for countless babies and causing panic for millions of parents. Yet the Abbott executive responsible for that facility came before a congressional committee Wednesday and refused to take responsibility for what is obviously a deep, systemic problem.

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“What steps are you taking to change that culture, and have any heads rolled?” asked Rep. Morgan Griffith (Va.), ranking Republican on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s investigations subcommittee.

“On the culture problem, um, I don’t think it’s a problem,” replied Abbott’s Christopher Calamari.

Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.), a pediatrician, asked about the Abbott workers “who for the past several years have been covering up, skirting around the rules, misreports how much formula is in cans … this lackadaisical disregard for standards.”

“Respectfully,” answered Calamari, “the whistleblower allegations, we don’t know them to be true.” And he testified that there is “no conclusive evidence to link our formulas to these infant illnesses” — which is true, though the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

If the measure of a society’s health is how it cares for the most vulnerable, this week revealed a profound sickness in ours. The gun lobby and Second Amendment extremists pursue gun rights with no regard for the death and trauma their absolutism is causing America’s children. The corporate lobby and antigovernment zealots fight to defund and dismantle government regulation, leaving parents little choice but to trust the lives of their babies to businesses such as Abbott. And a broken government, unable to legislate, allows it all to happen.

In the infant formula case, there’s no question the regulators — the FDA — screwed up. A whistleblower sent a 34-page report to the agency in October alleging appalling conditions at Abbott’s Sturgis plant, yet apparently the report didn’t reach top FDA officials for four months.

But the FDA itself was hamstrung — by Congress. The agency asked Congress in March 2020 for “supply-chain authority” so that it could monitor potential supply disruptions in infant formulas precisely like this one, but it didn’t get that authority. “The industry has fought us tooth and nail,” FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf testified on Wednesday. The FDA is also working with outdated technology and without the power to force businesses to report when they find cronobacter, the pathogen responsible for the infant illnesses.

The FDA finally closed the Abbott plant, but not before four infants were sickened with cronobacter after consuming formula from Sturgis. Its inspection found standing water, cracked equipment, a leaking roof, inadequate handwashing, muddy footwear and bacteria growing. The same plant had been finding cronobacter since 2019, and it had a recall over beetles and larvae back in 2010.

Yet the word “sorry” appeared only once in Calamari’s written testimony, and then to apologize for shortages, not unsanitary facilities or contamination. Grilled on specifics, Calamari replied with pablum: “We’re now in an aligned position to move forward … We have processes and protocols in place.” He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say whether anyone had been fired or disciplined, or how many internal safety complaints had been filed.

“A disturbing pattern of negligence,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) the panel’s chairwoman.

“Seems like that facility’s culture is a problem,” said Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.).

“I’m worried about all these babies,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.).

Yes, the babies. Their young lives are on the line, and even now, Abbott deflects and avoids responsibility.

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