The Baby Formula Shortage Is a Crisis of Capitalism

The Right has seized on the US baby formula shortage to discredit the Biden administration. It’s correct to harp on the administration’s failures — but the crisis is due to the dysfunctions of an economic system of which Republicans are the biggest champions.

Bare shelves of infant formula at a Safeway store in Monroe, Washington, on January 23, 2022. (John Crowley / Flickr)

Day-care scarcity. Cost-of living-increases. Rolling pandemics. And as if new parents in the United States didn’t have enough to cope with right now, the infant formula shortage continues. Last week, a market research firm found that more than 28 percent of powdered baby-food products were out of stock in US stores. In some places, parents are still driving hundreds of miles to look for food for their kids.

The crisis began in February when a few babies got sick from bacterial infections, causing the temporary closure of a factory in Sturgis, Michigan, that had been the nation’s largest baby formula manufacturer, making the product for Abbott Laboratories. This catastrophic event stressed supply chains that had already been disrupted by COVID-related labor shortages. The Sturgis factory opened in June, only to close again because of flooding. (Welcome to the joys of parenting in the twenty-first century.) It’s now operating again, but the damage to the supply chain, and to public trust, has been considerable.

There are few animal instincts more visceral than the desire of parents to feed their babies. My own son is now a teenager, larger than me, but I still vividly remember the rank unimportance of any other priority when the baby was hungry. Nothing mattered — not work, plans, sleep, or world events — more than the immediate nourishment of my infant. (I still organize my day around making sure he has enough food in the house.) The rage and panic of American parents facing an obstacle to providing the basic nurture and care required by babies throughout the animal kingdom has been explosive. As angry mothers turn against the Democrats, Republicans are shrewdly exploiting the crisis.

Republicans and right-wing media have been some of the loudest critics of the Joe Biden administration, and although the problem was covered in the mainstream media several months ago, its recent persistence has been chronicled most consistently by the right-wing news outlets. Conservatives are exploiting the problem to exacerbate Biden’s already high unpopularity. And they’re right to keep harping on this crisis. A society that can’t feed its babies is failing badly. But the right-wing media — and right-wing politicians — don’t have any solutions. In fact, their laissez-faire philosophy is a key part of the problem, narrowing the whole conversation from a range of solutions on offer to parents’ understandable survivalist reactions.

You wouldn’t know it from all the Rupert Murdoch media’s bleating on the matter, but the Biden administration has made far better use of its governmental powers than a Republican administration would have. In May, Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to speed the domestic manufacture of more baby formula. Operation Fly Formula, also launched in May, has used the federal government’s contracts with commercial airlines to import formula from Europe and Australia. (Biden’s Food and Drug Administration is also working to make it easier for foreign companies to continue to sell baby formula here after this crisis. Its tone-deaf line is “safety first,” but it is rightly trying to make sure it doesn’t deregulate to the point of poisoning babies with contaminated formula. The slow pace of this regulatory reform is, predictably, drawing further right-wing derision.) The government’s efforts are estimated to bring the total supply of eight-ounce bottles to 61 million, which still leaves a shortfall of some four million. The shortage is easing, but not fast enough.

Poor and working-class people have been hit the hardest by this massive market failure. Though some consumers are getting creative on the internet, people on food stamps — about 12 percent of all US families — can’t use them for food online, and even worse, many aid recipients are only allowed to spend it on a specific brand. (In many states, Abbott has been the sole contractor.) The situation is especially bad for babies in need of any kind of specialty formula for allergies or intolerances.

Left on their own to feed their babies, parents’ adaptive strategies may be worsening the problem. Biden’s strategies haven’t been ineffective, but, rightly, parents don’t trust the system that has been failing them. That means that when consumers see any baby formula, especially the kind they want, they’re stocking up, even hoarding it, because they are afraid of facing shortages again. Experts say an enormous portion of the shortfall might be sitting in wary parents’ basements. It’s not their fault for hoarding — I’m sure most of us would do the same if we were afraid of being unable to feed our babies — but rather, the fault of a system that leaves parents entirely on their own in any crisis.