four questions about the formula shortage that led Joe Biden to institute an airlift

four questions about the formula shortage that led Joe Biden to institute an airlift

It has become “one of the priorities” of US President Joe Biden. The United States suffers from a major shortage of baby milk: shelves are emptying one after another across the country, forcing stores to ration purchases and leading parents to endanger the health of their child. Where does this shortage come from, and how does the country respond to it? Franceinfo returns to the subject in four questions.

How big is the shortage?

Infant formula is currently one of the hardest products to find on US store shelves. Stock available for purchase in the country was 43% below its usual level between May 1 and May 8, according to data provider Datasembly*. This rate has increased almost continuously since November 2021, when it was only 11%, according to the firm.

Some states are harder hit than others: the drop in stocks reaches 54% in Delaware or Tennessee, according to Bloomberg*. Several American chains of stores or pharmacies, such as Target and CVS, have therefore limited the quantity of milk that can be purchased at one time.

What explains this shortage?

Many factors come into play. The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the production of baby milk in the United States, slowing the transport of raw materials and contaminating factory workers. But it was above all the shutdown of the largest American production site in February that precipitated the shortage.

The giant Abbott closed its factory in Sturgis (Michigan) and recalled products suspected of having caused four cases of bacterial infection in infants, including two fatalities. The FDA, the US food safety agency, eventually exonerated Abbott, but found other health lapses and so production still hasn’t resumed.

At the same time, the country does not have the opportunity to import similar products. Most foreign brands do not have FDA authorization to market their products in the United States, because of labeling and packaging standards, explains France 24. The American infant milk market is therefore concentrated between hands of a few large national firms.

As this is an unprofitable sector, manufacturers may be tempted to increase their margins by cutting costs, according to an expert interviewed by Fortune*. Except that by operating at tight flows, they no longer have the means to cope with a disruption in supply or a sharp increase in demand. However, the specter of a shortage pushes parents to buy more.

What are the dangers caused by this shortage?

For many American families, infant formula is a necessity. In the only rich country that does not guarantee parents paid maternity leave, according to the World Policy Center*, mothers often have to return to work very soon after giving birth, which prevents them from breastfeeding.

Low-income households are also affected by the price increase and having infant milk delivered from another American state can be expensive. Public food aid exists, but it can only be used for specific ranges of milk, which further limits the choice.

Moreover, it is not always easy to change brands if one of them is missing. According to the White House*, qome 5,000 American children are dependent on specific ranges of infant milk. “Some children may experience gas, discomfort or spit up if parents use a different brand”describes Mona Amin, a Florida pediatrician interviewed by Bloomberg*.

It is essential to feed infants with milk adapted to their nutrient needs, so as not to expose them to serious health problems. This is why pediatricians urge parents not to “make” milk themselves, unlike many viral social media posts.

What measures have been taken to remedy this?

To great ills, great remedies. While the Republican opposition criticized Joe Biden for his inaction, the American president decided to establish an airlift on Wednesday May 18: the “Fly Formula” operation will aim to import infant milk that meets American standards.

The Ministry of Defense “will use its contracts with commercial cargo airlines, as it did during the first months of the Covid pandemic, to transport products from factories overseas” and meeting US safety standards, the White House said. Joe Biden also asked his Ministers of Health and Agriculture to “take all possible and appropriate measures to import more baby milk”.

At the request of elected Republicans and Democrats, the president also appealed to a law dating from the Cold War, the “Defense Production Act”. Thanks to this text, the ingredients of infant milk powder will have to be sold as a priority to milk manufacturers, even if they can be used for other products in normal times.

Finally, the FDA relaxed its criteria to speed up the authorization of imports and authorized the restart of the Abbott factory in Sturgis. But the manufacturer explained that the new production would take eight to ten weeks to arrive in stores.

* Links followed by an asterisk are in English.