Americans believe that authorities showed blatant incompetence: for too long they ignored the deficit of baby formula. The US Federal Trade Commission has launched an investigation.

“Hungry Children of the Superpower” might sound like an oxymoron but screaming headlines like these, splashed across newspapers and news portals worldwide, are as real as the acute shortage of baby food that has blighted the US in the past several months and exposed the vulnerabilities of the economic powerhouse.

Last month, the shortage reached alarming levels, forcing President Joe Biden to send military planes to get supplies from Europe. 

And that’s not all: parents are being asked to feed their babies with cow’s milk, with a rider that it could be dangerous. American mothers are spending hours every day searching for food for their babies. They are even diluting the formula. Others are underfeeding their babies to conserve their remaining stock. 

Retailers and online sellers are posting out-of-stock notices even as the President acknowledged strain on family ties due to the nationwide crisis that blindsided his administration.

The UK is sending two million cans of baby formula while 1.25 million cans will be supplied by an Australian company. But the crisis, according to some, might last the year. 

Deadly formula

Experts from different countries agree that the causes of the crisis are purely domestic: ineffective government regulation as well as protectionism.

It all began in the fall of 2021 when four parents turned up at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with a complaint that after taking baby formula their children were infected with a rare and dangerous bacteria Cronobacter sakazakii, which in two cases was fatal. Another application was filed by parents of an infant who was hospitalised with E.coli Salmonella in Newport.

However, FDA inspectors did not arrive at the Abbott Nutrition plant, the largest US manufacturer of infant formula, until January 31, 2022. 

When they did, they found five different strains of Cronobacter in the baby food. They also found serious food safety violations or, as FDA Executive Director Dr. Robert Califf said, “dreadful insanitary conditions”: a leaking roof, standing water on the floor, and cracks in the production equipment.

At the end of the inspection, in mid-February, Abbott Nutrition voluntarily recalled powder formulas and suspended operation of the production line until the problem was corrected.

As a result, the country was left without the supplier of about 20 percent of all manufactured formulas for many months. And since 90 percent of the American formula market is controlled by just four major companies—Abbot Nutrition, Mead Johnson Nutrition, Nestle USA and Perrigo—the closure of even one plant predictably led to a sharp decline in production and the disruption of supply chains.

The shortage of infant formula milk has impacted American minorities the most.
The shortage of infant formula milk has impacted American minorities the most. (AP)

Scale of the disaster

According to Datasembly service, by early May the deficit of formula in 11 thousand stores in the US reached 43 percent of normal days. At this point, in 25 states, 40-50 percent of stores ran out of baby food, and in five states, more than half of the shops had no baby formula stock. The mayor of New York City imposed a state of emergency in late May, prohibiting retailers from raising prices on scarce goods, among other things. “We want to let mothers and families facing hardship know: our city will do everything in its power to help you through this difficult time,” Eric Adams said.

But parents of babies across the US continued to complain on social media, calling for media coverage and political action, and posting photos of empty store shelves despite the authorities’ comforting statements.

“The problem is exacerbated by supply difficulties, product recalls and inflation at historic levels,” acknowledged Ben Reich, the CEO of analytics company Datasembly. Many retailers had by then already limited sales of baby formula. For example, pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens reported that they were selling no more than three packs per customer, and supermarket Target was selling just four packs in one order when purchased online. 

The FDA cited data that baby food manufacturers Gerber (USA) and Reckitt (UK) had increased production of infant formula by 50 percent and 30 percent respectively since the beginning of the year. But this did not help overcome the crisis.

According to experts, the main problem was that the remaining manufacturers in the US market did not make enough formula for children with metabolic disorders, allergies and other conditions that require a special diet. 

Minnesota Public Radio news reported that there are cases of children being hospitalised in Tennessee, Georgia, Wisconsin and other states because of nutritional problems.

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched an inquiry with a mandate to establish whether someone took advantage of the shortage of infant formula to inflate prices, whether someone prevented these products from reaching regular stores and whether federal or state authorities inadvertently contributed to this shortage in any way.

Helpless authorities

On May 18, President Biden invoked the Defence Production Act, which allows businesses to be forced to fill certain orders, and authorised the use of military planes to deliver products from overseas. He also ordered suppliers to send ingredients to baby formula manufacturers before any other companies.

Why did Biden take such drastic measures? Because the ability of the federal government to influence private businesses, especially in an emergency, is limited, experts say. In fact, the administration took advantage of its own problem-solving experience with the pandemic of 2020, when the country needed to increase the production of respirators, masks, ventilators, and other means to combat COVID-19.

On May 23, the first plane landed at Indianapolis airport with a delivery of 35,400 kilograms of Nestle’s lactose-free, hypoallergenic baby food from Europe. 

But this shipment can only cover 15 percent of the weekly requirement for such formulas. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told NBC News that this amount would be enough for 9,000 babies and 18,000 toddlers for 7 days. 

Another shipment of Nestle formula is to be delivered from Europe to the US by FedEx logistics company—its plane will take off from the Ramstein military base in Germany. More are on their way from the UK and Australia.

However, Americans are fiercely indignant. FoxNews reporters blame the empty shelves on the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, who is in charge of the FDA. They say he hasn’t done anything for months.

“Why is a man with zero experience in healthcare (is) in charge of the nation’s largest healthcare agency?” an ourtarged Stuart Varney, renowned anchor and conservative political analyst, said on live TV. “Another question arises: when did President Biden find out about the growing deficit? Surely aides must have informed him. Is he being ill-informed or is he dragging his feet again?” Varney demanded an answer.

According to The Washington Post, Abbott CEO Robert Ford apologised for the shortfall and promised to create a $5 million fund to help affected families cover medical and living expenses until the supply crisis is resolved.

His company also agreed with the FDA to reopen its Michigan plant in early June. However, it will be six to eight weeks before retail supplies of formulas begin. Many experts and laymen are advising the US to take care of the baby issue domestically and stay out of other countries’ businesses. 

The sarcasm is hard to miss. 

Source: TRT World