Over the past few weeks, a shortage of baby formula has grown into a nationwide crisis, leaving millions of families scrambling for safe food for their infants. With an out-of-stock rate of over 40%, many parents are driving for miles and waiting weeks for backlogged deliveries—if they can find the right formula for their babies in the first place. A function of the irrational nature of the capitalist market, formula first started disappearing from store shelves due to supply chain issues and a massive recall by the largest producer in the country, Abbott Laboratories.
In the context of the recent Supreme Court leak regarding the possible overturn of Roe v. Wade, the hypocrisy is tangible and sickening. The bourgeois rulers expect the working class to birth their children into a world that can’t even feed them or guarantee their basic needs.
Baby formula requires regular purchases because of shelf life and frequency of use. Typically, mothers spend around $18 every 3 to 5 days to keep their supply on hand. The price point and scarcity have led to price gouging, and mothers have resorted to supplementing unsafe ingredients or watering down formula to stretch it—dangerous practices that the FDA and pediatricians strongly advise against.
Given the demands placed on working-class mothers, only 25% of infants exclusively breastfeed through six months, meaning that most mothers are affected by the crisis. Between 10% and 15% of mothers in the US have low breastmilk supply, and many infants have specific food allergies that preclude most feeding alternatives. These large portions of the population are particularly at risk and can find no safe alternative to the formula missing from store shelves. Some stores have imposed buying limits, which can help mitigate panic hoarding and price gouging. But this does not solve the problem—it only manages the scarcity fabricated by the inefficiencies of a profit-driven system.
As in all crises, the poorest and most oppressed layers of the working class suffer the brunt of the shortage. Abbott holds exclusive supplier contracts with Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental food programs worldwide. WIC purchases make up half of all formula sales nationwide. Affordable access to infant formula is one of the primary benefits of this program, and almost half of all infants born in the US rely on this service.
So, why is it that supplies of this essential product are in peril? Certainly, an industry this important to human existence should be rock solid. And yet, the baby food industry has been at the center of attention for food safety concerns in recent years. Investigations found dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury in common baby food brands sold in US stores. These substances are associated with cancer, neurodevelopmental impairment, kidney and gastrointestinal diseases, DNA impairment, osteoporosis, immune system deficiencies, lung disease, and heart attacks.
The key event leading to the current shortage were four complaints received by the FDA of Cronobacter infections between September 2021 and January 2022. Two of the babies infected died. All four infants had consumed Abbott formula before becoming infected. The FDA had already been working on supply chain issues in the industry, and now Abbott had to “voluntarily” recall the formula and shut down its Michigan factory.
Not long after the first reports of bacterial infections in infants, a former Abbott employee sent a whistleblowing document to the FDA and other agencies concerning the Michigan site. The employee was fired for his “repeated elevating of compliance concerns.” The 34-page document outlines a history of deliberately falsifying reports, releasing untested infant formula, lax cleaning practices, failure to take corrective measures on concerns, and a lack of traceability.
The FDA neglected to recognize breaches in food safety practices and damaged equipment needing repair. In this case, Abbott’s neglect of drying machines in their factory led to holes in the piping, exposing the formula to bacterial contamination. The only way for Abbott to increase profits is to reduce production costs. That is the obvious incentive Abbott gets for its negligence and avoiding proper food safety protocols—risking the health of millions of Americans in the process.
The market for baby formula production is a shared monopoly. Holding 43% of the market share, Abbott’s only competitors are Mead Johnson and Nestle. The period leading up to the supply crisis coincides with Abbott spending $5 billion worth on stock buybacks and servicing dividends. Instead of spending that money on repairs and food safety protocols, the company enriched its board and investors.
Abbott Laboratories is also a major Covid-19 rapid test producer. With declining demand for at-home tests in 2021, Abbott idled its giant Illinois factory and laid off employees—later scrambling to fill the gaps as the Delta and Omicron waves surged. Having to tailor their production to the whims of the capitalist market, Abbott left millions of people without access to testing while raking in billions in revenue.
Amid this crisis, President Biden met with “retailers and manufacturers … to discuss ways we can all work together to do more to help families access infant formula.” Much like the “We’re all in this together” messaging during the worst of the pandemic, he appeals to the profiteering capitalists to address a crisis of their making—without threatening their profits. Biden and the FDA’s non-pressuring “urging” and unifying politician language does nothing to rectify the situation for hungry infants.
Meanwhile, the more rabid right-wing politicians have chosen their “culture war” strategy to distract from the real capitalist culprits of this failure. Texas Congressman Troy Nehls tweeted: “Baby formula should go to Americans before illegals. This should not have to be said.” It shouldn’t have to be said because it is a ridiculous misdirection. Every baby, documented or not, deserves to eat. There are more than enough resources and wealth in society to guarantee enough food, housing, education, and a decent standard of living for everyone.
The current crisis was completely avoidable. If the workers in the factory that produce the formula, such as the whistleblower, controlled production, it would prevent parasitic profit mongers from profaning the production of essential baby food. Abbott’s financial books should be opened to see just how much they save on costs through cutting corners on safety procedures—and where that money ends up.
In a rational society, the government would ensure that all citizens—starting with babies—have access to basic things like healthy food. However, as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg put it: “Let’s be very clear. This is a capitalist country. The government does not make baby formula, nor should it.”
A government that exists to manage the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie and maintain its rule cannot be relied upon to provide all basics of a decent life to the majority of the population. There is no clearer indictment of the capitalist mode of production in this epoch of decay than its failure to guarantee food for infants in the wealthiest country on Earth.
That is why Socialist Revolution fights for a workers’ party and government that can implement genuine socialist policies that benefit the vast majority. The entire monopolized industry of baby formula, and the broader food industry, should be run under democratic workers’ control. Based on a rational, democratic plan of production to fulfill human needs rather than the profit motive, productive capacity could be rapidly expanded to meet demand. Placing the working-class majority in the driver’s seat is the only way to guarantee healthy, quality food and a better life for everyone, from the cradle to the grave.