It’s a tough time to be the parent of a newborn in the United States today. Not only is child care prohibitively expensive, but the cost of all things including baby products is rising, COVID-19 poses a threat to children too young to be vaccinated—and there has been a months-long shortage of baby formula.
The formula scarcity began when the COVID-19 pandemic led to a disruption of ingredient supply chains and transportation delays. Then, this past February, the Food and Drug Administration found that several leading brands produced by Abbott Laboratories were contaminated with dangerous bacteria leading to a recall and a temporary closure of Abbott’s main Michigan factory where government inspectors found “shocking” conditions. Then, just as the Michigan plant reopened, torrential flooding forced it to shut down again.
There is nothing more important to a parent than providing for their child, especially during the most vulnerable, early years of their child’s life. As a mother who was unable to breastfeed when my children were newborns, I relied on formula and remember once having to drive quite far to a store in a neighboring town because my local store was out of the brand I relied on and that my child was used to. It was a stressful experience, one that is a mild example of what millions of parents are feeling right now as they face store shelves emptied of formula.
The shortage has driven prices up—yay, capitalism! For a variety of systemic reasons that include economics, geography, and health, Black and Latino parents are disproportionately more likely to rely on formula feeding. To add to that, low-income parents of color are also disproportionately impacted by the formula shortage, as they may live in food deserts with fewer options for formula, and they may be unable to drive long distances to search other stores or pay premium prices for online shipping.
There is a simple reason why such a shortage has transpired: global capitalism and the food monopolies it has fostered. Although store shelves (when fully stocked) appear to offer a wide variety of baby formula products, some with different name brands, only two companies produce more than 70 percent of these products, at a small handful of factories: Abbott and Mead Johnson. A third company, Nestlé, produces about 12 percent.
Therefore, when Abbott shuttered its Michigan plant, that single closure affected a very significant portion of the nation’s stock of formula.
The U.S. government has encouraged this monopoly by choosing to buy formula for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program from Abbott alone.
It’s the definition of putting all of one’s eggs in one basket. If that basket breaks, a shortage of eggs is inevitable.
And it’s not just baby formula. In the U.S. market, only three companies produce 81.7 percent of all baby food products; four companies produce 85.4 percent of all canned tuna; three companies make 80.3 percent of all chocolate; three companies make 78.5 percent of all pasta products; and so on.
Now, food prices overall are sharply rising this year as inflation hits grocery suppliers. In response, manufacturers are engaging in “shrinkflation,” a form of theft: shrinking their package sizes while maintaining the same price so as to dupe customers into believing they’re paying the same amount.
Meanwhile, big food manufacturers are reaping record profits, undermining claims that they’re simply passing on their higher costs to customers.
Decades ago, food policy analysts warned of the pitfalls of food monopolies, such as Vandana Shiva, author of the 2000 book Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, and Raj Patel, author of the 2007 book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.
Both Shiva and Patel linked the profits of the world’s wealthiest food corporations to the plight of the world’s poorest farmers, and pointed out that in the relentless corporate drive to lower costs and maximize profits, food supply chains were consolidating and becoming more vulnerable to disruptions.
They also highlighted the folly of a global food supply chain relying on subsidized fossil-fuel-based global transportation systems that exacerbate climate change. The extreme flooding in Michigan that led to the closure of Abbott’s formula factory only two weeks after it reopened is a consequence of the carbon dioxide we’ve been pumping into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Advocacy organizations like Farm Action and Food and Water Watch have likewise been sounding the alarm about food monopolies for years. In late 2020, Farm Action released a report titled “The Food System: Concentration and Its Impacts” in which it drew attention to the growing monopoly power of food corporations. The report’s authors warned against the “concentration of ownership, wealth and power” in our food system, where “just a few companies dominate almost all aspects of food production.”
A year ago, Food and Water Watch did the same, warning the federal government in a report titled “Well-Fed: A Roadmap to a Sustainable Food System That Works For All” of the looming food crisis in the U.S., and saying that the only solution to creating a sustainable food future was to break up the corporate food monopolies. The organization recommended that the federal government ban the expansion of factory farms, place a moratorium on food corporate mergers, and invest in small, organic and sustainable farming systems.
On one end of the food chain there are starving farmers, and on the other end there are starving families—including babies. In the middle are a handful of fat cats—massive corporations like Abbott and Cargill—that keep getting fatter.
As is the case with most economic problems that can be traced back to corporate greed, the solutions are simple, and can be easily enacted if there is a political will to do so.
The Biden-Harris administration claims to understand the problem and the solution. For example, in a January 2022 fact sheet about the meat industry, the White House released its plan for “a Fairer, More Competitive, and More Resilient Meat and Poultry Supply Chain,” in which it acknowledged problems such as how “[f]our large meat-packing companies control 85 percent of the beef market.”
But the administration’s solutions to the problem of food monopolies did not even touch upon preventing mergers. Instead, it announced a toothless “portal” for “reporting concerns about potential violations of the competition laws.”
Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin has gone further than Biden, however, in sponsoring a new bill called the Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2022, which would enact a moratorium on food industry mergers.
In the meantime, what are formula-feeding parents to do in order to feed their babies? Baby formula is a product that can be neither made at home nor watered down. Parents often search for the product that best suits their newborn’s sensitive digestive systems.
One mother, Laura Stewart, told the Associated Press how difficult it has been for her 10-month-old daughter to deal with switching to whatever brands are available: “She spits up more. She’s just more cranky. She is typically a very happy girl,” said Stewart. “When she has the right formula, she doesn’t spit up. She’s perfectly fine.”
Now that corporate food monopolies are impacting the most vulnerable human beings in our society—babies—will government take drastic measures to break them up?