One of the most alarming consequences of the global disruption of supply chains due to Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine is seen in American supermarkets and pharmacies. The United States is currently experiencing a shortage of baby milk powder.
If this situation is particularly dramatic across the Atlantic, it is because the country is very dependent on powdered milk. The United States is one of the developed countries where children are the least breastfed.
Breastfeeding is common in areas that do not have easy access to good quality water, but the World Health Organization recommends that all women everywhere breastfeed newborns for their first six months.
There are several explanations for the importance of powdered milk in the United States. The first is their healthcare system. Parental leave is not guaranteed by law and few companies allow expressing milk at work. Thus, 60% of children are breastfed for less time than their parents had initially planned, this is particularly the case in low-income families.
However, this criterion alone cannot explain the shortage. France, which has better health coverage, has a level of breastfeeding similar to that of the United States, but no serious shortage.
The baby bottle duopoly
The other aspect of the problem is the powerful lobby of milk powder producers. The industry, which weighs 4 billion dollars in the country, is very largely dominated by two companies: Abbott Laboratories and Reckitt Benckiser Group. In 2021, 80% of baby milk powder sold in the country came from them.
To gauge the sector’s influence on government, in 2018, at the World Health Assembly, the United States attempted to oppose a resolution proposed by Ecuador that was intended to “protect, promote and support breastfeeding“. American diplomats are said to have even threatened the Central American country with cutting off certain military aid and imposing trade sanctions.
Result, the baby formula is one of the most regulated products in the country, which eliminates any possibility of competition. Only, if one of the companies has a problem, which happened when an Abbott factory closed in February, after the death of two infants, that destabilizes all production. If the factory was ultimately cleared, its closure when the supply chain was already disrupted was enough to cause the current situation.