The US is suffering from the biggest baby food crisis in decades. Milk powder for babies has been scarce for months. A factory halted production after the deaths of two infants. Baby food from abroad is now essential for American parents.
Parents in the US are desperate. In US supermarkets, the shelves where baby milk powder is normally found have been empty for months. They don't know how to feed their babies, order the powder from abroad or even mix it themselves - at the risk of the little ones being fed incorrectly.
A shortage that arose because an Abbott factory had to close due to hygiene problems. Four babies became ill and two died after being fed formula from the largest US infant formula maker. In February, Abbott had to recall its products and stop production at the Michigan plant because of suspicions that the milk powder could have been contaminated with bacteria.
A supply crisis with announcement, because in the USA only a few manufacturers share the baby food market, says Hans Foldenauer. "80 percent of the baby milk powder production is in the hands of two companies. And if there is a crash in one company, there is quasi chaos," explains the spokesman for the Federal Association of German Dairy Farmers in the podcast "We learned something again".
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has now tested Abbott's baby powder. The result: the baby milk wasn't to blame for the babies dying, the powder was fine. Production is now allowed to restart, probably in the first week of June.
Although Abbott's suspicions have not been confirmed, FDA inspections have uncovered over 480 irregularities at the Michigan plant. For Hans Foldenauer, this is an example of how profit is often more important to many manufacturers than quality. "Ever cheaper, ever faster, less and less control. Poor pay for the employees often plays a role, too, and they don't work as well as they do."
The expert sees another reason for the milk powder crisis in the USA in the USA's import policy. "America first. The hurdles, the bureaucracy, the customs formalities were so high for manufacturers from countries like Germany or the Netherlands that it was no longer worth maintaining sales channels in the USA."
In the US, almost all milk powder needs are covered by domestic companies, 98 percent. Hardly anything is delivered from abroad. Only small amounts come mainly from Mexico, Ireland and the Netherlands. High tariffs and strict regulations from the US Food Safety Authority (FDA) make it difficult for foreign companies.
That should change now. Because baby food from abroad should fill the gap in the USA. The US government allows more imports and wants to make the rules for imports more flexible.
In addition, President Joe Biden has set up an air bridge to Europe - "Operation Fly Formula". A military aircraft flew the first delivery from the Ramstein US base in Rhineland-Palatinate to the USA at the end of May, a total of around 30 tons. 22 tons of it come from Nestlé, informs the food company ntv.de on request. That fills at least 1.5 million baby bottles in the US, but it's far from enough. "You can't compensate for a loss like this from this week to the next. Nobody is prepared for that. If European baby food manufacturers step into the breach, we're missing it," explains milk expert Foldenauer.
In order to boost domestic production, US President Biden also pulled a law of war out of a drawer, the "Defense Production Act". This allows politicians to force industrial companies to produce certain things. The law was also used during the corona pandemic. Companies had to make medical devices and masks. Now suppliers have to provide baby food manufacturers with the necessary ingredients before any other customer.
Other European manufacturers are also stepping in: the British company Reckitt Benckiser and Danone from France have increased their deliveries to the USA. It may be another six to eight weeks before American milk powder is back on the supermarket shelves.
Is that why there is a bottleneck here in Germany? "I don't see any supply shortages in Germany or the EU," emphasizes Hans Foldenauer. He compares the situation to the baby powder crisis in China. "We had empty shelves because a lot had gone, but no baby had to go hungry." There was a pollution scandal in China in 2008. Milk powder from Germany was also in high demand back then. There were even criminal gangs who stole the packs from German drugstores and sold them on the Chinese black market.
However, parents must be prepared to spend more on milk powder and other baby food in the future. "We have a situation where we have significantly increased prices for all agricultural products. And of course that also means that food for babies is becoming more expensive," explains Hans Foldenauer in the podcast.
Since the start of the Ukraine war, not only have energy and raw material prices been rising, but foodstuffs such as butter are also becoming more and more expensive - and there is no end in sight. Among others, the food manufacturer Nestlé, which also produces baby milk, wants to raise prices further.
Foldenauer emphasizes that we would only spend eleven percent of our income on food. "If food costs more, including baby food, then people will be more aware of it," estimates the expert. In addition, 30 percent of the food ends up in the garbage. Here, too, we would have to rethink. "There is certainly baby food in many households where the expiry date leads to it being thrown away."