There are many privileges we accept in America. Access to food is definitely at the top of that list. So it is shocking to see the country grappling with the problem of providing milk to its youngest citizens.
The nightmare of baby food shortages plaguing the United States is not an overnight phenomenon. It has been rising since September of last year. While the severity of the shortage made the headlines with the recall of some Abbott products that resulted in the closure of its Sturgis facilities in Michigan in early May this year, the roots of the shortage run deeper in a market distorted by limited competition, private contracts. , and only a few major suppliers.
Getting started with the baby food market is hard to predict. Its demand is determined by the nation’s birth rate. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of births has been falling every year except for one year since 2008. However, the market has shrunk every year. Then, the pandemic, which started in 2020, has further exposed the fragility of supply chains as well as temporarily changing people’s purchasing habits.
Spring food sales skyrocketed in 2020 as Americans stockpiled formulas like toilet paper, according to Lyman Stone, research director at consulting firm Demographic Intelligence. Then sales dropped noticeably as people worked on their stock, causing emissions and adding more chaos to the production planning process. Stone’s research also found an increase in births and a dramatic decrease in breastfeeding rates among new mothers in early 2022. This once again increased the demand for formulas.
But this wouldn’t be a problem if only a handful of companies (Abbott, Gerber, Perrigo and Reckitt Benckiser) dominated the baby food market. Of these, one factory of Abbott (which they had to close) serves 40% of the market. A classic example of how bad reduced competition is for the economy.
The concentration in the formula market has worsened with FDA regulations. 98% of the formula consumed in the US is produced domestically, and more than half is purchased through a low-income family nutrition program known as WIC. Abbott has an exclusive provider agreement with WIC, the USDA’s complementary nutrition program. So, in a way, it’s the overdependence on Abbott that’s causing the formula problem to escalate.
Shocked by the fact that a country obsessed with hoarding could be so completely atrophied when it comes to baby food, Dr. I reached out to Geeti Ghosh.
With over 30 years of experience, he had the opportunity to observe how the industry and government mismanaged child nutrition for years. Horrified, she said the WIC program encourages new parents to have so many formulas that they occasionally sell out. And then there was the crisis, and yet the government did not regulate the extra stocks they were distributing through the WIC.
“This is a failure for both the formula industry and the government. “Both were aware of the shortcoming since last year,” he said.
I asked how Indian society was affected and how they were coping with the famine, as there were so many Indian families with babies in his practice. “Indian parents are market savvy. They understood the gravity of the situation early on and started buying from Amazon. Luckily the formula can be stocked for up to a year so most have had no issues,” he said.
He advises patients’ families to turn to generic formulas that are as safe as the big brands. Some generic formula brands on the market, like Kirkland Signature available at Costco, have been around for over a decade, Sam’s Club carries Member’s Mark Baby, and Target has its own brand of Up & Up Advantage Infant Formula. Generic brands are both good and cheaper, he said.
Talking about the larger systemic issues plaguing the baby food industry in the US, he added, “This is a crisis that could have been easily avoided if there was a will.”
The strict regulations of the FDA, some of which Dr. It doesn’t allow European formula brands that are better than American formulas, according to Ghosh. Import duties and restrictions practically eliminated any competition from Canada and Europe. This level of protectionism may help the big brands in the country, but it may not really serve American families with babies.
Paulami Chowdhury, a six-month-old mother of six in South Windsor, Connecticut, is part of a Facebook group called Find My Formula, which exchanges information and tracks the availability of formulas in the area. “There is panic among parents, but luckily there is also the desire to get together and share relevant information,” she said.
He observes how creative people are in trying to manage the problem. Knows about moms returning to Amazon Canada to order formula. “Facebook groups also hold swap events where parents exchange formulas,” she said.
As Abbott reopens its Sturgis facility, shelves are expected to fill up with more material in about six weeks. Until then, Americans may consider whether they want to address this conundrum more permanently by updating regulations and allowing more competition, or by making emergency arrangements like “Operation Flight Formula.”
(Best photo, Facebook photo of Isaac Whitman)
Sreya Sarkar is a Boston-based public policy analyst who previously worked as an anti-poverty expert at US think tanks. She is a keen observer of Indian politics and currently writes non-fiction articles and columns for Indian politics blogs and magazines.