The fruit of U.S. capitalism: Not enough baby formula


The United States is experiencing an unprecedented shortage in baby formula. In February, Abbott Nutrition, which controls nearly half the U.S. market in formula, closed manufacturing facilities in Sturgis, Mich., after two infants died and two others developed bacterial infections. Inspectors for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had charged that the formula had been manufactured in unsanitary conditions and in violation of safety requirements. As a result, retailers are rationing the number of products, as the stock on their shelves remains limited.

The situation is so dire that on May 18, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to increase baby formula manufacturing. Under new conditions imposed by the FDA on May 16, Abbott would reopen its Michigan facility in two weeks after making corrections, and products were supposed to be back on shelves in six to eight weeks.

Also, as a temporary measure, the Biden administration authorized an airlift of baby formula to the United States from Europe. In the first shipment, on May 22, some 75,000 pounds of Nestlé formula arrived in the U.S. from Switzerland. European formulas use different ingredients from those manufactured in the United States. For example, EU food standards ban corn syrup—commonly found in U.S. formulas—and require at least 30% of the carbohydrates to come from lactose, which scientists believe is preferable.

While the Supreme Court looks primed to abandon the constitutional right to an abortion, the capitalist economy’s inefficient and utterly criminal organization is contributing to the death and malnourishment of babies. Considering that nearly half of baby formula in the U.S. is bought under the WIC program (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), we know that once again this crisis falls overwhelmingly on working-class women.

While the one sector of the bourgeoisie continues to orchestrate a monopoly between the state and certain big corporations, the free trade liberals are foaming at the mouth to deregulate and impose market-based solutions. Women and those with reproductive capacity are stuck in the middle, placed in the impossible situation of both providing the most basic necessity for their children while also working.

A baby formula monopoly

Months before infant formula was removed from grocery store shelves, a former employee and whistleblower of Abbott Nutrition sent a detailed complaint to the FDA alerting them to negligent oversight at the Sturgis, Mich., site. The employee was later fired.

Abbott exploited the crisis surrounding the pandemic and made a fortune. Abbott Nutrition is a division of Abbott Laboratories, a company that jumped in rank from number 104 to 89 on the Fortune 500 list last year. The company reportedly raked in more than $4 billion in sales during the first quarter of 2021 due to its shift to the COVID testing market. Financial records and whistleblower documents show that Abbott used its landfall profits to enrich investors rather than replace equipment disseminating dangerous bacteria into products.

Four companies control about 90% of the baby formula market. The WIC program makes it so the relationship between the state and these companies is one of mutual benefit: Abbott and Mead Johnson have contracts covering 87% of infants in the WIC program. These companies keep a small number of formula factories to maximize exploitation and keep expenses down and production costs low. When a factory has an issue, like Abbott, production grinds to a halt.

The two sectors of the bourgeois class provide different “solutions” to this problem: One side argues that we must deregulate the industry and ease tariff restrictions, claiming that the current problem is one of competition. The other side, embodied by the current federal administration, calls for more funding of governmental regulatory bodies. With the Defense Production Act, the Biden government will give $28 million to the FDA to increase inspections on foreign plants.

As socialists, we know that neither of these capitalist solutions will solve the problem. While the free-market liberals are right that the baby formula industry is a monopoly, they fail to see that that is the natural outcome of capitalism. The situation requires a different solution altogether—nationalize the baby formula industry and create worker-controlled factories that democratically manage production and supply.

Breastfeeding in the age of imperialist capitalism

The criminal behavior of monopoly baby formula corporations is only one side of the problem. The other requires asking why it is that women are so reliant on baby formula in the first place. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for about the first six months, with continued breastfeeding for at least one year while introducing complementary foods. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control an Prevention), while nearly six in 10 infants are still breastfeeding at six months of age, only one in four are breastfeeding exclusively.

The discrepancy between breastfeeding recommendations and the reality has to do with the utterly deplorable maternity-leave legislation in this country. Currently, the U.S. offers no national paid-leave program. In 2021, only 21% of workers had access to paid family leave through their employers. Without paid maternity leave, how are women supposed to nurse their infants? Breastfeeding newborns can take anywhere between five and 20 minutes (in some cases longer), once every hour and a half to three hours. Technology will not solve the time and effort it takes to produce milk; pumping is recommended at the same frequency as you would breastfeed.

Whether or not they breastfeed should be entirely up to the mother. But considering the energy and time it takes to breastfeed under the current policies, for many working women there is no choice: formula is the only way to keep their job and make ends meet.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are going to solve this problem for us. While Biden had campaigned for 12-months paid family and medical leave, by the end of 2021 the Build Back Better bill had decreased the time to four weeks before entirely dying. We need an independent women’s movement that mobilizes our class around the issue of women’s oppression as it directly relates to social reproduction. We need to connect the fight for free, safe, and on-demand abortions with nursing and child care.

We demand:

  • Paid family leave!
  • Nationalize the baby formula industry without indemnity and controlled democratically by workers!
  • Free quality child care!
  • Free, safe, and on-demand abortions!

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