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.
formula scarcity began
the COVID-19 pandemic led to a disruption of ingredient supply chains
and transportation delays. Then, this past February, the Food
and Drug Administration
that several leading brands produced by Abbott Laboratories were
contaminated with dangerous bacteria leading to a recall
a temporary closure of Abbott’s main Michigan factory where
government inspectors found “shocking”
Then, just as the Michigan plant reopened, torrential flooding
it to shut down again.
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
shortage has driven prices
capitalism! For a variety of systemic reasons that include economics,
geography, and health, Black and Latino parents are
rely on formula feeding. To add to that, low-income
parents of color
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.
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
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.
when Abbott shuttered its Michigan plant, that single closure
affected a very significant portion of the nation’s stock of
U.S. government has encouraged this monopoly by choosing to buy
formula for the Women,
Infants and Children (WIC)
from Abbott alone.
the definition of putting all of one’s eggs in one basket. If
that basket breaks, a shortage of eggs is inevitable.
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.
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.
reaping record profits, undermining claims that they’re simply
passing on their higher costs to customers.
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
and Raj Patel, author of the 2007 book Stuffed
and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.
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.
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
it reopened is a consequence
the carbon dioxide we’ve been pumping into the Earth’s
organizations like Farm
and Water Watch
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”
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.”
year ago, Food and Water Watch did the same, warning
federal government in a report titled “Well-Fed:
A Roadmap to a Sustainable Food System That Works For All
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.
one end of the food chain there are starving
and on the other end there are starving
In the middle are a handful of fat cats—massive corporations
keep getting fatter.
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.
Biden-Harris administration claims to understand the problem and the
solution. For example, in a January 2022 fact
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.”
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.”
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
food industry mergers.
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
Parents often search for the product that best suits their newborn’s
sensitive digestive systems.
mother, Laura Stewart, told the Associated
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.”
that corporate food monopolies are impacting the most vulnerable
human beings in our society—babies—will government take
drastic measures to break them up?
commentary was produced by Economy
a project of the Independent Media Institute.