How Low Can We Go to Make a Profit?

My first baby was breast-fed, even though I was working full-time as a teacher. My daughter’s caregiver lived a quarter-mile from school, and I was able, when she was tiny, to buzz over and feed her during my planning period, mid-day.

By the time she was six months old, and eating cereal (with breast milk), I could stay at school all day, and feed her after school. She drank from a cup at eight months, and I was off the hook shortly after her first birthday. 

But I was always aware of how fortunate I was to have support—at school, at day care, and at home—that made it possible for me to feed my child. Being given a third-hour prep period, attached to lunch, for example, because I asked for it—I have known school administrators who would balk at that. I’ve heard horror stories from teaching moms who have to pump their milk in the only staff restroom, and much worse.

My second child—adopted at three months—was bottle-fed. He was lactose intolerant and had to have a special, soy-based formula that wasn’t available every place.  We had to remind well-meaning people never to feed him Similac or Enfamil. And we had to cope, for the first time, with the need for clean water, sterilizing bottles, heating them in the middle of the night, and securing a stock of his special formula. Not to mention getting out of bed.

He was worth every bit of that trouble, of course. But I’ve been thinking about current shortages of baby formula, and how they have re-started the old, tired Mom Wars, the judging of mothers for all kinds of choices: medicated childbirth, smoking/drinking during pregnancy, scheduled C-sections, caffeine consumption and going back to work.

Breast-feeding is just one of those choices. Or so you might be led to believe.

Somehow—like so many things—this all gets laid at the feet of women, including the ‘choice’ to maintain a dangerous or unwanted pregnancy. But it’s really not about choosing, is it?

Many times, what is labeled choice is actually set in concrete by interlocking layers of policy, built up over time. The answer, for example, to why more women don’t breast feed—it’s easier, it’s free, and ideally suited for the baby, after all—is buried under dozens of reasons, beginning with our capitalistic system that doesn’t provide adequate, compensated time off for the birth of a child.

And what about those ‘free samples’ of formula, to hook frazzled parents of newborns? Why are manufacturers allowed to do that? Who wins and who ultimately loses?

Of course, there’s no choice at all in needing to work to have food and a roof over your head vs. living in a homeless shelter with a newborn. From San Antonio, TX:

The shortage has been a challenge for families across the country, but it is especially palpable at grocery stores and food banks in San Antonio, a Latino-majority city in South Texas where many mothers lack health insurance and work at low-wage jobs that give them little opportunity to breastfeed. Across the city, baby food aisles are nearly empty and nonprofit agencies are working overtime to get their hands on new supplies. Republicans have seized on the widening anxiety among parents to blame President Biden, arguing that the administration has not done enough to ramp up production.

There are reports of on-line stashes of formula being offered at four times the retail price—and even more for specialty formulas, like the one we used. How low can vendors go to make a profit? And why aren’t there enforced policies against that?

How do we understand decisions that compel women to proceed with an unwanted or medically threatening pregnancy? With centuries of policy, hoarding power and control.

Derek Thompson, in an interesting piece in today’s Atlantic, asks: What if we invented a technology to save the planet—and the world refused to use it?

Baby formula is, indeed, a useful technology, a way to provide nutrition to infants whose mothers are unable—for any reason—to feed them by other means.

The problem is not that world has refused to use infant formula, but that corporations have used advertising to make it essential, then let other marketing technologies (just-in-time supply chains, for example) control a good that they have made indispensable. Congress hasn’t seen fit to provide parental leave, like virtually all other first-world nations.

If we’re going to point fingers, leave mothers out of it.

10 Comments

  1. Amen. And then we hear about corporations making record profits… I don’t know if that is true of the formula makers, but it wouldn’t surprise me. “Just in time” for what and whom? Was greed always so acceptable?

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  2. There’s a lot to unpack here. It’s good that Abbott was identified as the maker of tainted formula, and investigated. But why are we so reliant on a handful of formula providers, to the point that closing one of them down creates a national panic and run on formula? It feels as if our unwavering support for the Unrestricted Market, buying cheaply rather than locally, has made us LESS secure.

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    1. I was born in 1964 and was a bottle fed baby. There was no baby formula back then (also no disposable diapers). Women made formula with evaporated milk (sometimes powdered milk), boiled water and vitamin drops that were purchased at the local pharmacy for very little money. I turned out just fine as did millions of other children born before and after me. The development of “baby formula” was for convenience and it was another marketing scheme for big business (Nestle?) to make $$$$$$. We are so beholden to corporate entities that we are convinced that we can’t live without what they are selling. I feel bad for parents stuck in this mess, but it’s time to get back to basics and give corporate America the boot!

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      1. I agree with your assertions about Nestle and their marketing schemes. But if I had fed my son evaporated cow’s milk and vitamin drops, he would have been miserably ill. For me, it was not just about convenience. For him, back to basics was a special soy-based formula.

        I am also wondering why I’ve seen so many posts similar to yours–‘my mom made her own formula and I turned out fine.’ You DID turn out fine, but the guilty parties here are not moms desperately seeking formula. It’s the corporations that, through advertising, free samples and misinforming women in third-world countries, put profit ahead of children’s well-being.

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      2. Even if the corporations hadn’t suckered people into using formula, sometimes special dietary restrictions as well as life circumstances dictate how a baby is fed. We don’t have to accept colic anymore as something the baby will grow out of.

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  3. I’m not blaming moms. It’s about educating moms and empowering them with the knowledge to avoid a terrible situation. We all turned out OK and our parents didn’t spend tons of money (or time) to feed us a commercial formula. We can ALL win when we say NO to corporate entities who make us feel they are here to save us from ourselves all while making a huge profit. Most young moms think that women solely breast fed 50+ years ago and they have no idea that baby formula was made on the kitchen stove with simple ingredients from the grocery store. I make my own laundry detergent and household cleaners for pennies rather than spend $$$$ for products made mostly of tap water, soap and some form of alcohol. As for your adopted son, there are/were other recipes available for those not able to tolerate cow’s milk….goat milk, soy, rice, nut etc.

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  4. First of all–making homemade formula is not recommended:

    Second–most women DO breastfeed. About 83%, according to the CDC, with 57% still breastfeeding when the baby is six months old. So it’s not something women did in the past and have lost the hang of. Women turn to the convenience of formula for various reasons, all of which are valid and acceptable.

    From the NYT– here’s what I am angry about:

    1. The ‘everything shortage’
    The pandemic has created shortages for many goods, including cars, semiconductors and furniture. The main reasons: Factories and ports are coping with virus outbreaks and worker shortages at the same time that consumer demand for physical goods has surged, because of government stimulus programs and a shift away from spending on services (like restaurant meals). As a result, much of the global supply chain is overloaded.

    The baby formula industry was already coping with these issues before an Abbott Nutrition factory in Sturgis, Mich., shut down. The company shut the factory after four babies — all of whom had drunk formula made there — contracted a rare bacterial infection; two of the babies died. It remains unclear whether the formula caused the infections.

    Because sales of baby formula do not fluctuate much in normal times, factories generally lack the ability to accelerate production quickly, Rudi Leuschner, a supply-chain expert at Rutgers University, said. As a result, other factories have not been able to make up for the Sturgis shutdown.

    2. Big business
    The baby formula business has something in common with many other U.S. industries: It is highly concentrated.

    Three companies — Abbott, Gerber and Reckitt — make nearly all of the formula that Americans use. Abbott is the largest of the three, with roughly 40 percent of the market. Over the past few decades, this kind of corporate concentration has become more common in the U.S. economy, and it tends to be very good for companies. They face less competition, allowing them to keep prices higher and wages lower. Thomas Philippon, an economist at N.Y.U., refers to this trend as “the great reversal.” The subtitle of his 2019 book on the subject is “How America Gave Up on Free Markets.”

    For workers and consumers, concentration is often problematic. The baby-formula shortage is the latest example. If the market had more producers, a problem at any one of them might not be such a big deal. It’s even possible the problem would not happen at all.

    “Abbott does not fear consumers will flee,” Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, which advocates less concentration, told me. “And it does not fear government, which has a pathetic track record when it comes to holding powerful corporations and executives accountable.” (The Times has profiled Miller and her work.)

    3. Big bureaucracy
    Many formulas sold in Europe exceed the F.D.A.’s nutritional standards, but they are banned from being sold here, often because of technicalities, like labeling. Donald Trump exacerbated the situation with a trade policy that made it harder to import formula from Canada. These policies benefit American formula makers, at the expense of families.
    The inflexibility of American regulatory and trade policy might be the most important part of the story.

    4. The gerontocracy
    The U.S. has long put a higher priority on taking care of the elderly than taking care of young families.

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    1. “4. The gerontocracy
      The U.S. has long put a higher priority on taking care of the elderly than taking care of young families.”

      And they don’t do a terrific job of that either.

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