American consumers are struggling to find many products right now, but the most serious shortage is infant formula. A situation which affects the most fragile and which is due to a multitude of factors, linked both to the pandemic and to inflation, and to a health scandal.
“Miami families in despair,” writes the site of WRGT, a local television station in Florida, while Salt Lake City television narrates the “intense stress of parents in Utah”. Headlines of this type are multiplying and becoming increasingly alarmist in the American media in recent days.
In question, a shortage of powdered milk throughout the country. More than 40% of stocks are sold out in 11,000 stores, reports the daily USA Today, Monday May 9. In six states – Iowa, Missouri, Texas, South and North Dakota and Tennessee – more than half of the products are no longer available, specifies the CNN channel which relies on the data from Datasembly, a site tracking local product price trends in the United States, released in early May. “Infant milk is now the product for which the shortage is the most serious in the United States”, underlined Ben Reich, CEO of Datasembly.
“I am ready to pay cash”
Pictures of empty supermarket shelves have flooded social media as young parents recount their endless journeys from Target to CVS (two American supermarket chains) to find the Holy Grail.
“I have two children. I can’t find their powdered milk anywhere and I’m willing to pay cash for whatever you can get,” wrote Texas resident Ashley Hernandez on eBay, whose children need it more for health reasons. , of a very specific milk.
“Every day we receive testimonies from parents who are anxious, angry, and especially very afraid because the health of their children is at stake”, underlined in New York Times Brian Dittmeier, one of the leaders of the National WIC (Women Infant Children) association, a support organization for the poorest families.
In the United States, 75% of infants over six months receive at least part of their food in the form of powdered milk, underlines the Axios site. This shortage is therefore likely to leave traces if it continues, which can have an impact on the development of children, recalls CNN.
From pandemic to inflation…
A situation that has not escaped politicians, especially in the Republican camp. Several of them called on the Biden administration to view this shortage as a “national crisis”while urging the president, in a clever mix of genres, to reduce financial support for Ukraine in order to free up funds for American “mothers”…
The formula shortage is a national crisis, hitting poor moms and kids the hardest.
The FDA needs to immediately step up, be transparent, explain how it will get production restarted, and give parents a timeline.
And the Biden Administration needs to take this seriously.
— Tom Cotton (@TomCottonAR) May 9, 2022
Even some Democrats, like Iowa Rep. Abby Finkenauer, have called on the government to do more. In particular, they asked him to use the Defense Production Act – a law allowing the State to force companies in the country to manufacture certain products as a priority – to overcome this shortage.
The situation has only gotten worse over the past year. In the spring of 2021, powdered milk still seemed to be just one of the long list of products affected by supply chain failures due to the pandemic. While most of the major powdered milk brands – Nestlé, Reckitt, Abott – manufacture their products locally for the American market, they nevertheless depend on certain ingredients or packaging boxes imported from China or elsewhere, underlines the Wall Street Journal.
At that time, only 10% of milk powder stocks were sold out. But while the shortage of other products in the United States – computer chips, textiles – has not worsened, this is not the case for infant formula. By January 2022, 20% of products had become unavailable.
It was no longer just tensions in supply chains that were at work, but also the specter of inflation, boosted by rising energy prices partly due to what was then not as well as the crisis in Ukraine.
Why has the availability of powdered milk been particularly affected by inflation? It is often less substitutable than other products, so families may tend to stock up when they expect prices to spike, explains The Guardian. It seems manufacturers have been caught off guard by this milk powder rush.
… Going through a health scandal
This shortage has, moreover, particularly affected the poorest populations because the laboratory, exclusive supplier of dispensaries where free doses of powdered milk are distributed, found itself at the center of a health scandal.
The Abbott Nutrition group was indeed forced to organize a massive recall of several product lines from mid-February. This American laboratory which, in addition to its collaboration with dispensaries, markets some of the most popular children’s milks in the United States, found itself singled out by the health authorities following the discovery of a possible link between their products and four cases of hospitalized children, two of whom died.
These children had been infected with a very specific bacterium – cronobacters – which can, in certain rare cases, cause very dangerous infections for the youngest such as meningitis or severe inflammation, notes the Food and Drug Administration (FDA, gendarme American Drugs).
Traces of this bacterium have been detected in one of Abbott Nutrition’s factories in Sturgis (Michigan) by the FDA. In a report published in March, the agency concluded that the laboratory had not applied the necessary hygiene measures at its infant milk manufacturing site.
The scandal only escalated when several media outlets revealed in mid-April that a whistleblower had already informed the FDA of a hygiene violation at the Sturgis plant six months before. the discovery of cronobacter infections.
Abbott Nutrition disputed the FDA’s findings and blamed the whistleblower’s claims on the rancor of a terminated former employee. The laboratory nevertheless followed the recommendations of the FDA and organized, from mid-March, an additional recall of products.
In the meantime, to cope with this shortage, most large shopping centers have limited the number of boxes of infant milk sold per customer. In the hope of being able to keep some control over their stock.
Powdered milk has thus become the latest illustration, and perhaps one of the most striking, that no one escapes the repercussions of the current crises. Not even the infant, far from being aware that his bottle depends, in part, on the confinements in China, their effects on the supply chain and the tensions in the heart of Europe which contribute to soaring prices.