The Baby Formula Crisis and the Failure of the Capitalist System

Empty baby formula shelves but capitalists’ pockets are stuffed full.
Empty baby formula shelves but capitalists’ pockets are stuffed full.

By Chris Fry

Starting in September 2021 the CDC received reports of Cronobacter bacteria cases in infants in Minnesota, Ohio and Texas that resulted in four illnesses with two deaths. But since only the state of Minnesota requires testing for this bacterium in seriously ill infants, there may have been many more cases. Here is what an article from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) says about this disease:

Cronobacter multi-species complex (formerly Enterobacter sakazakii) is a group of gram-negative bacteria that exists in the environment, and which can survive in very dry conditions. The natural habitat for Cronobacter is not known. It has been found in a variety of dry foods, including powdered infant formula, skimmed milk powder, herbal teas, and starches.

Infants (<12 months old): In infants, Cronobacter usually causes sepsis or severe meningitis. Some infants may experience seizures. Those with meningitis may develop brain abscesses or infarcts, hydrocephalus, or other serious complications that can cause long-term neurological problems. The mortality rate for Cronobacter meningitis may be as high as 40%.

Cronobacter infections have been associated with consumption of reconstituted powdered infant formula. In several outbreak investigations, Cronobacter has been found in powdered infant formula that had been contaminated in the factory.

Powdered infant formula is not sterile. Manufacturers report that, using current methods, it is not possible to produce sterile powdered infant formula. At the factory, Cronobacter could get into formula powder if contaminated raw materials are used to make the formula, or if the formula powder touches a contaminated surface in the manufacturing environment.

The Cronobacter outbreak was traced to an Abbott Nutrition plant in Sturgis, Michigan, where 11,000 people work. Abbott itself controls 48 per cent of the baby formula market. It is one of three companies that control more than 90 per cent of the market. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the federal agency tasked with ensuring that foods are safe to consume. A whistleblower from the Sturgis plant sent a devastating report to the FDA last October about poor sanitary conditions and management’s hiding those conditions in favor of rewarding stockholders. A May 20th article in the Guardian states:

The federal whistleblower complaint alleged some of the Sturgis plant’s equipment that caused the bacteria to get in the product “was failing and in need of repair”, and company management was aware of the issue for up to seven years ahead of the outbreak.

“A number of product flow pipes were pitting and leaving pinholes. This allowed bacteria to enter the system and, at times, led to bacteria not being adequately cleaned out in clean-in-place washes,” the report reads. “This, in turn, caused product flowing through the pipes to pick up the bacteria that was trapped in the defective areas of the pipe.”

The problems are not limited to ageing equipment, according to the whistleblower. Management at the plant also falsified records, improperly trained employees, and successfully hid health and safety risks from the Food and Drug Administration auditors in 2019.

Abbott detected bacteria eight times as its net profits soared by 94% between 2019 and 2021. And just as its tainted formula allegedly began sickening a number of babies, with two deaths reported, the company increased dividends to shareholders by over 25% while announcing a stock buyback program worth $5bn.

In the two years ahead of the recall, Abbott’s net profits jumped from $3.6bn to $7.1bn, its operating margins improved, and revenue in the US pediatric nutritional division increased by about 16%, Securities and Exchange Commission filings show. Company executives in earnings calls attributed the new pediatric nutritional revenue to market share gains and price increases, while Covid tests were a boon to the parent company.

Despite federal and state laws supposedly protecting whistleblowers, Abbott saw fit to fire that brave person for submitting that report, accusing them of violating the company’s “safety policies”.

Capitalist government teams up with industry to endanger infants

As a New York Times May 23 article states, the FDA has given Abbott a free hand in ensuring that the formula they produce is safe for vulnerable infants:

The Sturgis plant has had troubles going back to 2010, when beetle parts in formula triggered another recall. In recent years, inspection reports show, federal inspectors found standing water in manufacturing areas, a fan loaded with dust and debris positioned near a formula drying area and sanitary zones that were not cordoned off.

In October, a whistle-blower complaint from a former Sturgis quality assurance worker landed with the Food and Drug Administration. He claimed that, in 2019, the plant did not destroy an entire batch of formula where problematic micro-organisms had been found because “senior management was under significant pressure to meet its ‘numbers’”; and that the company was “sanitizing” files before providing them to F.D.A. auditors, failing to disclose details about micro-organisms it found.

The F.D.A. … in 2014 began requiring infant formula makers to take 30 samples, each the weight of about two nickels, from every lot of formula and test them for Cronobacter.

But the regulations did not define the size of a lot. For Abbott, lots can reach 300,000 pounds, said Scott Donnelly, a former food product safety director who has testified as a witness for a plaintiff suing Abbott over problems with formula.

“The F.D.A. pretty much let industry — Abbott — define a ‘lot’ so as to minimize testing,” he said in an interview. “The end result is that the micro-testing for pathogens was inadequate.”

Determining exactly how much should be tested is a difficult equation that requires regulators to make decisions about what an acceptable amount of risk is and at what cost, said Barbara Kowalcyk, the director of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention at Ohio State University.

Meat and poultry are inspected far more regularly than infant formula, she said. “Do I think they need to re-look at the regulation? Absolutely.”

The story then gets worse, with state agencies, the CDC and the FDA failing to act to protect babies. According to a May 10th New York Post article:

A worldwide recall of formula produced in the plant has left store shelves bare and parents scrambling for safe alternatives to feed their babies.

Only a handful of Cronobacter infections are reported yearly but given only the state of Minnesota requires labs to report positive tests, it is unclear how many illnesses are missed.

The CDC needs to reconsider making Cronobacter a nationwide reportable disease, so no illnesses are missing, and outbreaks figured out sooner so the product can be taken off the market in days instead of months

The FDA has essentially been silent on what it failed to do, but more importantly, what it plans to do to prevent the next Cronobacter outbreak. Instead, the FDA facing formula shortages, abdicates its responsibility to protect the public by letting parent know they are on their own with this thin gruel of a warning: “Those seeking access [to the formula] should consult with their healthcare provider in considering whether the benefit of consuming such product outweighs the potential risk of bacterial infection in the user’s particular circumstances.”

Capitalist vultures smell opportunity with government and Big Tech help

On February 17th, after six months since the first illnesses were reported, the FDA finally forced Abbott to issue a “voluntary recall” of its formula. Then Abbott shut down its Sturgis plant, throwing its workforce out of work.

Never let it be said that retailers will fail to victimize terrified parents facing empty shelves which normally are stacked with containers of formula. As NBC News reported on  May 23:

Parents struggling to find baby formula amid a nationwide shortage are reporting that price gougers are selling bottles and cans marked up by as much as 300 percent or more on websites like eBay, OfferUp, Amazon and Craigslist, and inside Facebook communities. But in many cases, they’re finding that the platforms are doing little to punish the predatory sellers.

“If you go onto eBay, there is page after page after page of people selling formula for double, triple, quadruple what it costs in stores,” said 42-year-old Lisa Davis, a mother of five from Lehi, Utah, who supplements her 14-month-old son’s diet with formula due to his small size, as strictly advised by his pediatrician. Davis estimates that she has flagged around 20 predatory formula listings to eBay. “But eBay does nothing about it.”

In one case, she found a single 12.4-ounce can of Enfamil Gentlease listed for $60 before shipping — more than triple what Target, Walgreens and other out-of-stock stores are currently charging. She informed the seller that she had reported it to eBay for its inflated price, which only elicited an angry response.

“[G]et over it,” the seller wrote back in an exchange reviewed by NBC News. “it is not illegal u may dislike but u have NO right to interfere in my business. People do it constantly.”

And parents are also faced with U.S. imperialism’s assertion of global hegemony under both the Trump and Biden regimes even for something as vital as baby formula, as a May 20th New York Times article reported:

But the factors that long ago led to the creation of an industry controlled by a handful of manufacturers are primarily rooted in a tangled web of trade rules and regulations that have protected the biggest producers and made it challenging for others to enter the market.

The United States, which produces 98 percent of formula consumed in the country, has strict regulations and tariffs as high as 17.5 percent on foreign formula. The Food and Drug Administration maintains a “red list” of international formulas, including several European brands that, if imported, are detained because they do not meet U.S. requirements. Those shortcomings could include labels that are not written in English…

Trade rules contained in the United States Mexico Canada Agreement, which replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement, also significantly discouraged Canadian companies from exporting infant formula to the United States. The pact established low quotas that trigger export charges if exceeded. American dairy lobbying groups had urged officials to swiftly pass the agreement and supported the quotas at the time.

As a congressman pointed out, “There are a lot of babies who have somehow survived baby formula in Europe,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that they’re similar to the babies we grow here.”

Abbott has promised to rush its reopening of its Sturgis plant in June. But of course, safety concerns remain. And it may be many weeks until new shipments arrive at store shelves.

Babies are not racist and anti-worker, but capitalists and their minion politicians sure are

The right wing has asserted that this crisis stems from the federal government following mandates requiring it to ship formula to feed migrant babies at the border. But as a May 18th Guardian article reports:

Steven L Schooner, a professor of government procurement law at George Washington University told the New York Times that the amount purchased for migrants, “is statistically the equivalent of zero in terms of market share”.

Poor and working women, particularly Black women, face a much higher challenge from this crisis, as that same Guardian article points out:

The crisis is hitting poorer families disproportionately hard. Nearly half of baby formula in the US is bought under the WIC program, aimed at helping low-income women, infants and children. States give exclusive contract rights for this formula to one company under a bidding process. Abbott provides formula to about half of the babies receiving WIC benefits. When these products disappeared, families were left scrambling to find alternatives.

There are racial disparities, too. Rates of breastfeeding are lower for Black babies than white babies, according to a 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Black women are more likely to live at or below the poverty level and more likely to return to work sooner, the report states.

“Those women are less likely to have flexibility in their jobs to be able to pump and express milk,” said Dr Ann Kellams, a University of Virginia faculty pediatrician and board president of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. “They are the ones I worry most about right now. They are going to be the ones who are less likely to have a relative in a pocket of the US where they still have enough formula on the shelves to send it to them.”

The roots of this crisis: the capitalist system itself. Time for change.

A May 25th opinion article in the Hill newsletter asks: “How could the closure of a single production plant trigger a national public health crisis and throw the entire food supply for millions of American infants into total chaos? And what’s being done to make sure it never happens again?”

“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates nearly 20 percent of infants under two consume baby formula to supplement their early nutrition. These innocent children are entirely reliant on the collective responsibility we share to make decisions that protect their wellbeing. We failed them. We can, and must, do better.” Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.  

The quest for profit overrode any concern for the welfare of the lives and health of millions of infants. The capitalist U.S. government, which proclaims itself above the corporations and the banks and protector of the people, proved once again that it is completely in the pocket of the billionaire class, of the owners of private productive property like Abbott.

This terrible crisis shows that a transformation of society is in order. It is time for the vast productive network to be taken away from private hands and placed under public ownership, by the workers and oppressed. It is time that production and distribution is guided by scientific planning designed for the benefit of all, not the enrichment of the few. In short, this crisis shows the need for revolutionary socialism.

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