Capitalism Created the Baby Formula Shortage

The US baby formula shortage has left millions of parents struggling to feed their children. It's the result of a capitalist system that prioritises the profits of super rich corporations at the expense of public health.

The baby formula shortage has left parents desperate to feed their children (Samuel Corum / AFP - Getty Images)

The baby formula shortage in the United States has created a chilling reality for parents and caregivers. Despite being a $50 billion global market, millions of parents have been left desperately searching for formula to feed their babies, demonstrating the danger of allowing the private sector to dominate the distribution of such a vital good.

The shortages have bloomed into a crisis affecting millions of parents, particularly those who cannot produce breast milk, who use formula as a supplement, or whose babies have needs that require a specific type of formula. In the US, it’s been reported that 43 percent of baby formula is no longer available, increasing to 50 percent in some states. 

Two babies have already been hospitalised for nutrient deficiency because the specialised formula they needed was unavailable in stores. Contributing to this is the stark increase in the cost of baby formula, which has risen by 18 percent. It’s unfathomable that parents in the richest country in the world are without the means to feed their children.

The causes for the shortages are threefold: global supply chain issues, a monopolised US formula industry designed for maximum profit, and the shutdown of Abbott Nutrition’s plant in Sturgis, Michigan—now reopened—following a contamination scandal.

This should been seen as part of a wider crisis for women’s health and bodily autonomy. Occurring in the wake of the leaked Supreme Court’s draft of plans to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling, the formula shortage means that reproductive rights are being threatened at the same time as the government is failing to guarantee the ability of parents to feed their new-born babies.  

However you look at it, the system is the problem. It is, however, operating exactly as it was designed. The blame should fall squarely on the capitalist system that denies people—particularly minoritised, working class, and poor people—the full right to parent. Without access to formula, parents are left without the right to a real choice. Baby formula should be free and produced through a nationalised system of production—not for the profit of a few billionaires. 

Capitalism Working as Designed 

In order to understand the shortages, we need to understand how the crisis was decades in the making—a consequence of leaving the private sector responsible for healthcare. The ‘invisible hand’ of the free market, meant to ensure the equitable supply and demand of goods, is clearly not at work. Instead, a small number of corporations dominate the market, making massive profits while neglecting the healthcare needs of the public. The baby formula shortage is a consequence of these monopolies.

The shortage began when a major producer of formula, Abbott Labs, shut down its main production facilities in Michigan a few months ago after becoming contaminated with the bacteria Cronobacter sakazakii, resulting in the death of two babies and the sickening of two others. The shutdown and recalls worsened a shortage that had been brewing due to supply chain and logistics delays. This only spiralled further after desperate parents rushed to the stores to buy formula in bulk. 

A report by the Washington Post highlighted that just four major companies—Abbott, Gerber, Mead Johnson, and Perrigo Nutritionals—produce around 90 percent of all US baby formula supply. Of those four, two large conglomerates control two thirds of the market. 

Abbott itself has not been financially penalised for the shortage because of its other streams of income as a conglomerate, including selling medical devices and nutrition. Its shares rose during the recall as they reaped the rewards from selling home Covid testing kits. So while parents have been resorting to desperate measures including making their own formula, the CEO of Abbott made $25 million dollars just last year.

A Crisis of Inequalities

There are countless reasons why parents may prefer one way of feeding their babies over another, and there are many parents who face obstacles to breastfeeding, including illness, premature births, cost, and low supply. For these parents, baby formula is lifesaving. 

That means the formula shortage is not being experienced equally, but is highlighting and deepening existing inequalities. Like many other countries globally, the US fails to provide adequate conditions for people to breastfeed their babies, even if they could and wanted to, which puts paid to the statement that ‘breastfeeding is free’ and accessible to all. This includes the time women use to breastfeed, alongside all the accessories needed to alleviate potential discomfort in breastfeeding. As this article by Vox explains, the amount of time spent breastfeeding is almost the equivalent of a full-time job—but there is no pay. 

In addition, our patriarchal capitalist system erases the physical and emotional weight of breastfeeding. The effect of this erasure is twofold; it minimises the labour of the nursing parent and demonises parents who switch to using baby formula, because ‘breast is best’. But without the necessary measures in place—such as strengthening employment rights to ensure workers have the time, space and facilities to breastfeed, and providing paid parental leave—the choice to breastfeed does not actually exist for many parents.

This is further exacerbated by existing racial inequalities in childcare, such as acute pain from breastfeeding amongst women from minoritised communities, particularly Black and Hispanic women. For example, Black women have historically faced and continue to face obstacles in breastfeeding, including a lack of breastfeeding support in the hospital, at work, and in public, more pressure to formula feed, and cultural roadblocks. This was evidenced by a study the CDC conducted in 2019, which found that rates of breastfeeding are lower for Black babies than white babies, with the intersection of race and income making it much more difficult for Black parents to breastfeed. 

Putting Health Before Profit

Last month, in response to the shortage, Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act, which requires suppliers of ingredients to give preference to baby formula companies over others and allows the US to import formula from other countries; only two percent of infant formula is imported—mainly from Mexico, Ireland, and the Netherlands—because of high import tariffs and the FDA’s stringent regulations on nutritional values, labeling, and inspections. But that was a vastly insufficient and inadequate response to the crisis, which could have been easily avoided.  

The formula shortage is a product of a capitalist system that relies on the unpaid labour of families, especially mothers. It is a system that invests as little as possible in the next generation—including low wages, a lack of parental leave, the absence of universal childcare, and a privatised healthcare system—while extracting as much profit as possible.

There are a lot of things that our government and policymakers could do to support breastfeeding families. The only reasonable solution for the crisis was, in reality, for the production of baby formula to be nationalised. Baby formula should not be commodified and sold—it should be a basic right for all parents, not a means of profit for billionaires.

But when this crisis is over, we shouldn’t stop there. We must continue to fight the barriers families face, demanding paid parental leave, breastfeeding support at work and in public spaces, and most importantly, access to healthcare for all. Only then will there be a real choice about how to feed our babies.