This article considers the reasons for the current shortage of baby formula and also the factors that influence mothers in choosing whether to breastfeed their newborn babies or to feed them with baby formula.
Why the shortage of baby formula?
The main immediate cause of the shortage of baby formula is the suspension of production at the huge Abbott Nutrition plant in Michigan following evidence of bacterial contamination.
So one reason for the shortage is an excessive concentration of production in a few giant plants. This is a tendency inherent to capitalism, for ‘one capitalist swallows many’ (Marx).
But the situation should also be viewed in the context of successful lobbying by the baby formula industry to weaken bacterial safety testing standards [Lee Fang, May 13].
Another factor is protectionism. The US strictly limits imports of European brands, which according to studies meet high safety and nutrition standards.
Yet another factor is so-called ‘lean’ or ‘just-in-time’ management of production and inventory. This practice minimizes storage costs by producing and ordering goods just in time to satisfy anticipated demand. Thus there is no spare productive capacity or stocks to hedge against unpredictable contingencies. (‘Just-in-time’ management also contributed to the shortage of medical supplies during the Covid crisis.)
For all these reasons serious shortages will be much less likely to arise in a system of production for use not profit, although the possibility cannot be wholly excluded.
Baby formula or breastfeeding?
Even though baby formula, like most other products, will be freely available in a socialist society, demand for it will be quite low. It will be used mainly when there is a medical reason not to breastfeed.
There is a scientific consensus in favor of breastfeeding. Breast milk provides babies with the best combination of nutrients for their health and development. It is safer than formula and easier for babies to digest.
Formula has to be mixed with water, so it should not be used where clean water is not available, as in much of the Third World, where two billion people drink water from sources contaminated with feces. Nevertheless, manufacturers ruthlessly market formula even in such areas, killing thousands of babies a year.
George Monbiot describes how they do it in the Philippines, dressing their saleswomen in nurses’ uniforms to gain the confidence of young mothers (The Guardian, 6/5/2007). The Philippines government tried to restrict promotion of baby formula, but the Pharmaceutical & Healthcare Association of the Philippines, representing the manufacturers and backed by the US government and Chamber of Commerce, thwarted the attempt by means of lobbying, diplomatic pressure, legal action, and even – so some suspect — assassinations.
In the US three quarters of mothers breastfeed for a time, though only 43% continue for six months and only 22% for a full year. The main reason why there is not greater reliance on breastfeeding is that most working families need full-time earnings of both parents to get by. The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees only up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child. Only 7% of civilian workers have access to childcare at or near the workplace – and even those are not necessarily free to take breastfeeding breaks.
This is not to deny that some mothers who might otherwise breastfeed are deterred by negative feelings related to body image. Breasts are central to the sexual objectification of women’s bodies. Some women fear that breastfeeding will make their breasts sag, contributing to loss of their sex appeal and making it more likely that their husbands will abandon them. Members of a socialist society will relate to one another no longer as objects but as whole human beings.