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The Baby Formula Shortage Is a Capitalist Crisis of Social Reproduction

The baby formula shortage is a consequence of capitalism and a crisis of social reproduction. Formula should not be commodified and sold — it should be free and a basic right for all parents.

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Semi-empty store shelf with a few cans of baby formula.
Image: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The baby formula shortage in the U.S. has been shocking and terrifying for parents and caregivers around the country. In the richest country in the world, parents fear they won’t be able to feed their children. 43 percent of the typically available baby formula is gone; in some states, this number exceeds 50 percent. Two babies have already been hospitalized for nutrient deficiency because the specialized formula they need is currently unavailable in stores. Contributing to this bleak scenario, price gouging has caused baby formula costs to rise 18 percent nationally.

The reasons for this shortage are threefold: pandemic supply chain issues, a monopolized U.S. formula industry designed for maximum profit, and the shutdown of Abbott Nutrition’s plant in Sturgis, Michigan after two babies died as a result of the contaminated formula produced there.

This shortage comes in the wake of the Supreme Court’s leaked draft indicating the overturn of Roe v. Wade, making this horrible situation all the more infuriating. Five unelected Supreme Court justices are about to take away the right to an abortion at the same time that parents are losing the ability to feed their newborn children. 

The blame should be laid squarely on the patriarchal capitalist system that denies the working class and poor people the right to parent. Pete Buttigieg spoke bluntly to CBS on the issue saying, “Let’s be very clear, this is a capitalist country. The government does not make baby formula, nor should it. Companies make formula” — for a profit. 

This system is precisely the problem. We must fight both for the right to baby formula and for the right to breastfeed; the right to a real choice. Formula should be free and produced by a nationalized system of production — not for the profit of a few billionaires. And we need paid parental leave to guarantee that people have the right to breastfeed if they so choose. 

Capitalism at Work

While defenders of capitalism speak of a free market, the reality of this system is that a few corporations own everything and make massive profits from their monopolies with the support of the capitalist state. The baby formula shortage is a consequence of these capitalist monopolies. 

As reported by The Washington Post, just four major companies — Abbott, Gerber, Mead Johnson, and Perrigo Nutritionals — produce around 90 percent of all U.S. baby formula supply. Of those four, two large conglomerates control two thirds of the market.

The government has been instrumental in creating this situation. The federal Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC) has exclusive contracts with companies in exchange for “discounts,” which results in a monopoly by two mega corporations. As David Dayden explains: 

If you go to the state of Michigan, the state of California, the state of Oregon, there’s only one company that, if you’re a WIC recipient, you can actually buy and get that formula for free. So, other competitors of that dominant company, whether it’s in the WIC program or not, you’re not going to put stuff on the shelves if half of your customers can’t buy it. So what you end up having is these little monopolies in all 50 states.

In order to maximize profits, these corporations have been cutting corners and ignoring safety standards in the baby formula factories. In October of last year, a whistleblower alerted heads at Abbott, as well as the FDA, of the unsafe conditions at the plant including unsanitary equipment. He was fired from the company and the Biden-led FDA dragged its feet to address this urgent matter. Around that time, four babies fell ill and were hospitalized and two died. 

The FDA waited to interview the whistleblower until December, and in January finally performed an inspection of the facility. The FDA found broken equipment, standing water, and five different strains of Cronobacter bacteria. They reported that Abbott “did not ensure that all surfaces that contacted infant formula were maintained to protect infant formula from being contaminated by any source.” Abbott maintains that the infant deaths were not a result of the formula produced at the Sturgis facility. 

To add insult to injury, as parents around the country struggle to feed their children, the CEO of Abbott made $25 million dollars just last year. 

A Crisis of Social Reproduction 

Whether to breastfeed or feed a baby with formula is entirely up to the parent — and shouldn’t be the business of sexist Twitter commentary or criticism. There are countless reasons why parents may prefer one way of feeding over another, and there are many parents who face obstacles to breastfeeding, including illness, premature births, low or insufficient supply, chronic mastitis, among others. For these parents, the development of modern formula is a literal life saver. 

But there are other obstacles that are inexcusable. The U.S. does not provide conditions for people to breastfeed their children even if they want to. It’s a complete myth to say that breastfeeding is somehow “free.” As Quartz explains, “Today, disposable income makes it easier to buy the accessories that alleviate the discomfort of breastfeeding: the Boppy pillow, the nipple shields, the gooey anti-chafing ointments. But nothing is as helpful to starting and maintaining breastfeeding than a woman’s time.”

Breastfeeding takes time — a lot of it. As Vox explains, the amount of time spent breastfeeding is almost the equivalent of a full time job — but there is no pay. 

Sexism not only erases the physical and emotional toll of breastfeeding, but also erases the actual costs of breast feeding. The insult of this erasure is twofold. On the one hand, it minimizes the work of the nursing parent, implying that the labor of social reproduction isn’t “real” work. On the other hand, it demonizes parents who switch to formula for their child. Without guaranteed paid parental leave, for many parents there isn’t a real choice around whether or not to breastfeed. “It’s very difficult to successfully breastfeed your child and still go back to work,” said Dr. Christopher Duggan, director of the Center for Nutrition at Boston children’s hospital. “There are a lot of things that our government and policy makers could do to support breastfeeding families.”

The CDC is quite clear about this. In a 2019 study, it 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 their babies:

Returning to work is another major barrier to breastfeeding initiation and continuation, particularly for black women. A woman’s plans for returning to work are associated with her intention to breastfeed; specifically, women planning to return to work before 12 weeks postpartum, planning to work full-time, or both were less likely to intend to exclusively breastfeed…Black women, especially those with a low income, return to work earlier than do women in other racial/ethnic groups and are more likely to experience challenges to breastfeeding or expressing milk, including inflexible work hours.

It’s no wonder that nearly half of U.S. baby formula is purchased through WIC, and it’s no wonder that these are the people who are most affected by the shortage. “Those women are less likely to have flexibility in their jobs to be able to pump and express milk,” said Dr. Ann Kellams, a University of Virginia faculty pediatrician and board president of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. “They are the ones I worry most about right now. They are going to be the ones who are less likely to have a relative in a pocket of the U.S. where they still have enough formula on the shelves to send it to them.”

Social reproduction refers to the “life making tasks” that women in particular are forced to take up, including, but not limited to, waged care-work and domestic labor. They are essential tasks, without which the next generation of the working class could not be raised. But they are also often unpaid (e.g., unwaged domestic work in the home), or underpaid (e.g., nannies, babysitters, even teachers, etc). From taking away access to childcare, to making women work longer hours at work, capitalism erodes the ability of the working class to reproduce itself. The baby formula shortage is perhaps the clearest example of capitalism’s crisis of social reproduction — people cannot even feed their babies. 

For Paid Parental Leave and Free, Nationalized Baby Formula 

Given the uproar, and with an eye towards the midterms, Joe Biden recently invoked the Defense Production Act, which will require suppliers of ingredients to give preference to baby formula companies over others. It will also allow the U.S. to import formula from other countries. But this is a vastly insufficient response to the crisis, one that could have easily been avoided. 

The formula shortage is a product of a capitalist system that relies on the unpaid labor of families, especially mothers, in order to reproduce the next generation’s working class as cheaply as possible. Capital wants to invest as little as possible in this social reproduction — no paid parental leave, no universal early childcare, austerity budgets for public schools, privatized healthcare — while extracting as much as possible.

To resolve the current formula crisis, particularly low-income families of color, we must fight now for nationalized baby formula production. Formula should fulfill the needs of families — not provide profits for billionaires. We must also keep it under the most stringent production standards, in which the death of two infants due to negligence would be impossible. Baby formula should not be commodified and sold — it should be free and a basic right for all parents.

We must also fight for paid parental leave for all families; only then will there be a real choice about how to feed babies.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

Nicolás Daneri

Nico is a writer and editor for La Izquierda Diario and a collaborator for Left Voice. He lives in Buenos Aires

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