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Understanding the baby formula crisis in USA: How Joe Biden administration ignored a problem brewing since January

A flawed trade policy, supply disruptions due to Covid-19 and the closure of a single plant contributed to the massive baby formula crisis that USA is facing

The United States has been experiencing a scarcity of baby formula, which has distressed parents. Many parents are finding it difficult to obtain for baby formula thanks to a combination of short and long-term issues that have plagued most of the major US brands.

The majority of newborns in the United States rely on formula, which is the sole recommended source of nourishment for infants who are not completely breastfed. The challenges related to the supply of baby formula began last year when the Covid-19 outbreak disrupted labour, shipping, and raw supplies – concerns that impacted the whole economy. Parents hoarding stocks during Covid-19 lockdowns significantly reduced availability.

Here’s a look at what’s causing the problem and what circumstances contributed to it, as well as the US federal government’s response.

What is a baby formula?

When their moms are unable to nurse their kids, they are given baby formula. These are cow milk compositions that have been altered to approximate the composition of human breast milk.

Dietary recommendations are established by the Food and Drug Administration and contain minimal protein, fat, calcium, and vitamin requirements. Manufacturers use sugars, oils, and minerals to achieve certain ratios. Although studies have consistently shown that breastfed babies have better health outcomes, the formulas are designed to resemble breast milk.

Medical practitioners urge solely breastfeeding newborns until they are 6 months old. However, according to one report, just one in every four children of that age is entirely dependent on breast milk. Some mothers are unable to breastfeed their children for various reasons, and such babies are completely dependent on baby food for survival. And after the age of of 6 months, most babies are fed baby formula in addition to mother’s milk to meet their growing nutrition needs.

When did the crisis start?

The problems with baby formula supply began last year when the Covid-19 epidemic impacted the whole economy. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, parents stockpiling stocks drastically decreased the availability of baby formula. Supply disruptions, along with a recent safety recall, have left numerous pharmacies and supermarkets out of stock.

According to WVNS TV, baby formula supply was roughly 20% lower in January at major stores than it was before the epidemic began. Then, in February, Abbott Nutrition recalled several major brands of powdered formula and closed its plant at Sturgis, Michigan, after federal investigators began looking into four newborns who became ill after drinking formula from the company. At least two infants had died, and FDA found traces of the bacteria Cronobacter sakazakii in the Abbott plant, after which several brands made in the factory were recalled. After that, Abbott decided to shut down the plant.

Because Abbott is one of just a few businesses that produce the great bulk of the US formula supply, their recall wiped off a significant portion of the market. Apart from marketing own brands, Abbott also supplies ingredients to several other makers of baby formula, therefore, the shutdown of just one plant had cascading effect on several others.

Role of Biden administration

Because of technicalities like labelling regulations, the FDA controls formulas so carefully that most of what comes out of Europe is illegal to purchase in the United States. So, the larger issue is trade policy. According to Scott Lincicome, the Cato Institute’s director of general economics and trade, the United States is a captive market for domestic dairy producers like Abbott, and at times of crisis, a lack of alternative suppliers becomes a major issue.

Most baby formulas produced in Europe meet the FDA nutritional guidelines, and in some might even be better than American formula, but still they are banned in USA due to technicalities like labelling requirements.

Moreover, there are lack of clarity over the shut down of the Abbott plant. The plant was closed voluntarily by the company in February itself after there were complaints of contamination in some of the packages, and therefore the shortage within a few weeks should have been anticipated. The plant is closed for over three months now, but it is not known why FDA and Abbott have failed to come to an agreement that to resume the production of baby formula.

Another point is that product recalls are common in USA and other developed countries, but they generally don’t lead to shut down of the plants. Only the effected or suspected to be effected batches are recalled from the market, and the plants continue production after necessary precautionary measures. But in this case, the Abbott plant has been closed for months for unknown reasons.

Is hoarding the only reason behind the shortage?

In a press briefing of the White House, Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated that a major problem with the crisis is hoarding as parents are hoarding baby food for their babies and retailers are hoarding to get profit for them. On being asked by a journalist about the parents having a stock with them, she stated that mothers stocking the formulas are also a concern.

Ample supply of baby formula to migrant detention centres

Hoarding is not the only issue as there are supplies which are not being directed to the states facing the crisis, according to accounts. According to Congresswoman Kat Cammack, the Biden administration has been transporting pallets of baby formula to migrant detention centres despite a nationwide shortage. Cammack tweeted about the problem. She said, “The first photo is from this morning at the Ursula Processing Center at the U.S. border. Shelves and pallets packed with baby formula. The second is from a shelf right here at home. Formula is scarce. This is what America last looks like.”

Cammack stated that she was alerted to the problem by a border patrol agent who sent her images of the packages.

Going further

Health officials recently proposed numerous efforts to increase availability, including allowing for speedier importation of formula manufactured elsewhere. The FDA is collaborating with Abbott to correct the infractions that led to the closure of its Michigan factory, which manufactures Similac, EleCare, and numerous other major powdered formulations.

President Joe Biden met with executives from baby formula producers and merchants on Thursday, urging them to do all necessary to ensure that families had access. President Joe Biden and top officials indicated on Friday that the United States’ baby formula deficit should ease considerably in the coming weeks.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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