New York Magazine: Nationalize Baby Formula

May 20, 2022 Media

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to address the national baby-formula shortage, ensuring that formula manufacturers are first in line for any ingredients they require and directing the Pentagon to use its contracts with commercial airlines to speed the delivery of formula from overseas. It’s good, at least, to have a president who will wield the power of the executive branch to confront a national crisis. Donald Trump failed to invoke the Defense Production Act in the early days of COVID-19, dithering as the country was ravaged. The baby-formula shortage is a disaster for millions of families and Biden, well aware of his eroding popularity, is right to take it seriously.

But the disappearance of baby formula was decades in the making, a product of a flawed economic system that favors the bottom lines of a select few corporate giants. In good times, Americans don’t have to pay attention to this reality at all, as needed products make it to the shelves despite the risk that one day something might go terribly wrong. If all Biden does is return the system to its precrisis status quo, he will have been like all his recent predecessors — willfully blind to how monopolization creates critical weaknesses in the American economy.

The shortage began when a major producer of formula, Abbott Labs, shut down its main production facilities in Michigan a few months ago after they had become contaminated with the bacteria Cronobacter sakazakii, killing two babies and sickening two others. Abbott Labs is one of three major companies, along with Mead Johnson and Nestlé, that control the baby-formula market. As Matt Stoller notes, Abbott alone provides at least 40 percent of the baby formula in the United States, under the brand names Alimentum, Similac, and EleCare.