Ironically, the richest country in the world has run out of powdered milk for infants. Millions of Americans are desperate. Panic is growing among parents: In American drugstores and supermarkets, the shelves for baby food have been almost empty for months.
In support groups on social media, many concerned mothers in the USA are currently sharing information about which baby product they just discovered in which store. In addition, more and more women are donating their expressed breast milk.
Many parents now drive hundreds of miles in hopes of finding powdered milk in other cities or states – but often find empty shelves there too. In their desperation, numerous mothers now feed their babies with juice, porridge, cow’s milk or heavily diluted milk powder – although American paediatricians in the media warn parents of babies in the first few months of life against this.
“Suddenly we couldn’t find anything anywhere,” Gillian Mahar tells the LA Times. Her nine-month-old twins can only tolerate hypoallergenic baby formula. “My husband and I went to 50 different stores within a 20-mile radius. Then we asked relatives, who were just driving from Phoenix to Los Angeles. We asked them to stop at absolutely every supermarket on the route and see if there might be something.”
Earlier this week, two infants were taken to the hospital in Memphis due to an allergic reaction. Your usual powdered milk is nowhere to be found.
The US government is now even setting up an airlift to import baby milk from abroad. The Department of Defense “will use its contracts with commercial cargo airlines, as it did in the early months of the Covid pandemic, to ship products from factories overseas,” the White House said on Wednesday. The government wants to take action against the lack of baby milk in large parts of the country.
The government also invoked a Cold War law to oblige manufacturers of ingredients used in baby milk production to prioritize supplying milk powder factories. This will “facilitate the increase in production and speed up supply chains,” the White House said.
Low-income mothers are often hit particularly hard by the bottlenecks. In the United States, women in low-paying jobs are rarely eligible for maternity or parental leave. They often work in the service sector – where neither home office nor breastfeeding breaks for pumping are possible. Statistics show that while 70 percent of infants in the poorer, residential area of South Los Angeles are formula-fed, in LA’s fancier Westside, an equal proportion are breastfed.
At the same time, Republicans are fueling the anger of many parents. Posting photos of milk powder shipments to refugee shelters alongside pictures of empty store shelves, they ask: Shouldn’t American babies be fed first? Texas Rep. Troy Nehls tweeted, “Americans should get the powdered milk before the illegals!”
Apparently, parents in Germany will not have to fear any similar bottlenecks in the foreseeable future. Because the reasons for the current shortage in America seem to be related to the USA: Delivery problems caused by the pandemic were followed by the closure of one of Abbott’s main production facilities in February. The company makes over 40 percent of all American infant formula.
After the death of two infants, the suspicion arose for the first time in February that the products could be contaminated with bacteria. Four more infant illnesses and two additional deaths followed. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigators found Cronobacter at the Michigan plant. Traces of the deadly bacterium were found here during routine investigations in 2019 and 2020. In September, further inspections revealed that factory workers violated prescribed hand hygiene regulations – even when they came into direct contact with the milk powder.
Shortly thereafter, a whistleblower reported that company executives had boasted about hiding important information from FDA investigators. The inspectors returned to the factory on January 31. Their findings: There were no improvements. They also found Cronobacter again next to the assembly line. Since then the factory has been closed.
For Joe Biden, there could be little more at stake ahead of the upcoming midterm elections. Due to high inflation, the ongoing pandemic and foreign policy crises, his approval rating has already fallen to a record low. Now he’s drawing the ire of more and more parents because of the baby food crisis.
For weeks he has been insisting that he is working tirelessly on the problem and removing bureaucratic hurdles so that more imports can soon be allowed into the country. Currently, 98 percent of milk powder consumption comes from US productions.
On Monday, the FDA finally reached an agreement with Abbott representatives: Production can start again in two weeks. In return, the company undertakes to hire a qualified supervisor. New violations of the rules can result in fines of up to five million dollars.
So far, Abbott has denied all allegations: The connections between the milk powder and the diseases are not clear. A company spokesman nevertheless promised: “We will do everything we can to regain the trust of American parents.”
But they have to be patient for the time being. Officials say there will be no chance of more milk powder on the shelves in six to eight weeks at the earliest – even if everything goes according to plan from now on.