By Martinne Geller
(Reuters) - U.S. health officials said they found no trace of potentially deadly bacteria that killed two infants in recent weeks in sealed cans of Enfamil baby formula, and that a recall was unnecessary, providing relief for the product's manufacturer, Mead Johnson Nutrition Co.
The death of one baby, 10-day-old Avery Cornett in Missouri on December 18, is what led chains including Wal-Mart Stores Inc, Walgreen Co and Kroger to pull some cans of Enfamil Newborn from shelves in an effort to protect consumers from Cronobacter, which can cause severe illness in newborns and has been found in powdered milk-based formula.
The death of a second baby, in Florida, was not known until an update from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late on Friday following the testing of samples taken from the infected babies' homes and company facilities.
"Parents may continue to use powdered infant formula, following the manufacturer's directions on the printed label," the agencies said in a joint statement.
"We're pleased with the FDA and CDC testing, which should reassure consumers, healthcare professionals and retailers everywhere about the safety and quality of our products," Tim Brown, Mead Johnson's general manager for North America, said in a statement.
Two other babies, one in Illinois and one in Oklahoma, were also reported with infections in recent weeks, but they both recovered.
The agencies said they found Cronobacter in an open container of infant formula, an open bottle of nursery water and prepared infant formula.
They said it was unclear how the contamination occurred, which suggests that it could have happened after the packages were opened. The agencies also said there was no evidence indicating that the infections were related.
"There is currently no evidence to conclude that the infant formula or nursery water was contaminated during manufacturing or shipping," said an FDA spokesman.
These findings basically clear Mead Johnson, whose shares have fallen 10 percent since the issue surfaced, said personal injury and product liability lawyer William Marler of the firm Marler Clark.
"It would be difficult to prove that this formula caused this child's death," said Marler, who has years of experience handling foodborne illness cases, including one in 2009 against Mead Johnson involving Cronobacter. That case was dismissed after no sealed cans tested positive, robbing the prosecution of the proverbial "smoking gun."
Officials for the CDC, Mead Johnson and Wal-Mart could not immediately be reached for comment.
Mead Johnson's name may be cleared, but the company will likely take some time to fully heal, experts say, given how serious the situation is and how sensitive people are about what they feed their babies.
"Bad news is bad news," said Robert Passikoff, president of research firm Brand Keys Inc. He said the negative publicity has already damaged Enfamil's brand equity and could have cost the company one cycle of new parents, who might feed their children formula for about a year.
Goldman Sachs lowered its earnings estimates for Mead Johnson last week for 2012 through 2014 by 3 percent on average, citing the risk of damage to consumers' trust in the Enfamil brand. It lowered its price target to $74 from $80.
Despite the costs of retesting its formula and the likely hit to earnings from something that is not its fault, Mead Johnson has little legal recourse against either the public health department, the victims' families or Wal-Mart, which pulled its product in the absence of a definite link.
"Could a lawyer cook up legal theories to sue? They can. Would that be a very wise move? I think it would be really, really stupid," Marler said, for two reasons.
"'We didn't know for sure and we wanted to protect our customers' is a pretty good defense," he said, adding that "Suing somebody isn't really the likely way you're going to get your product in their store."
Enfamil is the leading milk-based formula in the United States, controlling nearly 44 percent of the $4.29 billion market, according to Euromonitor International. No. 2 is Abbott Laboratories Inc's Similac, with a 24-percent share, followed by Nestle's Good Start with 10 percent and private label, or store brands, with 9 percent.
Still, the United States makes up less than 30 percent of Mead Johnson's sales, and is not what had been driving the company's shares, said RBC Capital Markets analyst Edward Aaron.
Until its latest troubles, the stock had more than tripled since its February 2009 spin-off from Bristol Myers Squibb, fueled by growth from emerging markets.
In the latest quarter, the company's sales rose 15 percent to $933.9 million, driven by a 30 percent jump in Asia and Latin America.
But Mead Johnson has done many things well in this crisis and should be forgiven quickly, said Mike Rozembajgier, vice president of recalls for Stericycle ExpertRECALL, a consulting and logistics firm.
"There's an understanding by the public that recalls are going to happen," Rozembajgier said. "How forgiving they might be with regard to a particular brand ... comes down to how the company manages the recall."
Mead Johnson has not had a recall, but has gone through many of the same steps, he said, such as working with the government,
being transparent and communicating with retailers and the press.
(Reporting By Martinne Geller in New York and Anna Yukhananov in Boston; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer, Steve Orlofsky, Gary Hill)