‘Hurt, angry, anxious, scared’: Converging crises lead to US baby formula shortage

‘Hurt, angry, anxious, scared’: Converging crises lead to US baby formula shortage


Along with much of the globe, US consumers are reeling from a cost of living and supply-chain crisis. One example is a shortage of baby formula caused by a constellation of factors, from rampant inflation to a massive recall over safety concerns.   

US media outlets are sounding the alarm with dramatic, emotional headlines: “Miami Valley families desperate,” announced one headline on the website of local Florida TV station WRGT. “I am currently having the worst time finding formula,” one mother of a 9-month-old told Salt Lake City’s KSL-TV. “It’s been such a stressful time,” she continued. “I never thought it would come down to something like this, where parents have to really struggle with options for their babies to eat.”

The US is facing a nationwide shortage of milk powder: Almost 40 percent of common baby formula brands were sold out across the US during the week starting April 24. That same week, more than half of the baby products usually sold were not available in six states – Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota.

And the crisis is set to endure. “We anticipate baby formula to continue to be one of the most affected products in the market,” Ben Reich, CEO of price tracking website Datasembly, told CNN.

‘I cannot find it’

Social media have been inundated with photos of empty shelves while parents recount endless treks to different supermarkets in search of the elusive formula.

“I have two children. I cannot find it. I can purchase this today. I can pay cash,” Dallas resident Ashley Hernandez wrote on eBay after finding a seller offering 10 tins for $40 each of a very specific baby formula her children need for health reasons.

“Every day, we hear from parents who are hurt, angry, anxious and scared,” Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National Women Infant Children Association, told The New York Times. “The lives of their infants are on the line.”

In the US, powdered milk is an essential part of the diet of 75 percent of babies over the age of 6 months. This means the shortage could well leave a significant mark on children’s future development.

Politicians have made much of the problem – especially in the Republican Party. Several of its members have urged US President Joe Biden’s administration to declare the baby formula shortage a “national crisis”. Adopting the classic “nationbuilding at home” approach, some Republicans have urged Biden to reduce financial support to Ukraine and use those funds to help American mothers.

Some Democrats have also implored Biden to do more, notably Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer of Iowa, who called on the White House to use the Defense Production Act, a law created in 1950 at the outset of the Korean War that allows the federal government to force companies to prioritise producing certain products.

The spectre of inflation

The crisis has intensified over the past year due to global factors. When it became evident in spring 2021 that coronavirus lockdowns had snarled global supply chains, it seemed that baby milk powder was just part of a long list of affected products. Major suppliers to the US market like Nestlé, Reckitt and Abbott make their products in America, but crucial ingredients are imported from countries like China.

Milk powder supplies had fallen by just 10 percent at that point. But – unlike other goods such as computer chips and textiles – the shortage amplified over time. By January 2022, supplies had dropped 20 percent.

By this point it wasn’t just supply chain problems at work – it was the broader problem of inflation re-emerging after 40 years.

Some economists had warned that the Biden White House pumping in extra money beyond the US economy’s spare capacity would fuel inflation, with too much money chasing too few goods. Then rising energy prices caused by the war in Ukraine aggravated the problem.

Baby formula has been especially affected by inflation because it is harder to find substitutes – meaning families tend to stock up when prices are expected to rise. And this rush to buy seems to have caught manufacturers off-guard.   

Abbott Nutrition scandal

A health scandal has made the crisis even more acute. Abbott Nutrition announced a mass recall of several products after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned consumers to avoid some of their baby formulas following the discovery of a possible link between Abbott formulas and bacterial infections in four babies – all of whom were hospitalised and one of whom died.

The Abbott recall was especially damaging because the company provides free formula across America to people who struggle to pay.

The four children were infected with Cronobacter sakazakii – a rare but lethal bacterium which can cause severe inflammation and even meningitis in infants.

The FDA found traces of this bacterium in an Abbott Nutrition factory in Sturgis, Michigan – concluding in a report published in March that the company had not respected the required hygiene measures.

The scandal gained momentum in April when US media reported that a whistleblower had informed the FDA of hygiene failures at the Sturgis plant six months before the Cronobacter cases were discovered.

Abbott Nutrition disputed the FDA’s findings and blamed the whistleblower allegations on the resentment of a fired former employee. Nevertheless, the company followed the FDA’s recommendations and announced another product recall in March.

In the meantime, most large shopping outlets have limited the number of cans of baby formula that can be purchased per customer to try and manage the problem.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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