Baby formula prices and production practices impact availability

Persistent issues in baby formula production and pricing continue to impact families. As prices rise, carers are struggling to feed infants in many parts of the Global North

January 05, 2024 by Peoples Health Dispatch
Photo: People's Health Dispatch

Almost two years have passed since the outbreak of a baby formula shortage in the United States exposed the harmful consequences of relying on the commercial milk formula industry for infant nutrition. Supply levels have yet to reach those preceding February 2022, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to issue warnings to major baby formula producers for not following set protocols.

The substance of the FDA’s warnings is evident in practice on a now-regular basis, as baby formula manufacturers continue to recall batches due to fear of contamination. The latest to recall about 675,000 infant formula tins was Mead Johnson Nutrition (Reckitt). The company informed the public that this particular batch might be infected with the same bacteria that led to the closure of Abbott’s factory two years earlier, triggering the national shortage.

Read more: One year of baby formula shortage in the US

In addition to the health concerns raised by the mismanagement of infant formula production by the corporate sector, fluctuations in supply and import of baby formula have also affected prices. Families in Canada also experienced problems in procuring enough baby formula during the US shortage, and stocks only began to stabilize properly in September 2023. On the flip side, the price of baby formula in Canada rose by more than 20% in only one year, putting additional strain on home budgets.

Similar percentages have been reported in the United Kingdom, where the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) warned that the price of infant formula had increased by 25% over the past two years. This means that the weekly supply of the cheapest baby formula is priced significantly above what is covered through the Healthy Start program, a benefit mechanism which aims to support pregnant women and families in purchasing healthy food. While Healthy Start foresees a weekly support of £8.50, the price of a weekly supply of baby formula in pharmacies and supermarkets now stands closer to £14.50.

According to the CMA, “the manufacturers have increased their unit prices for infant formula by a higher amount than their costs have increased.” In other words, the increase in infant formula prices, forcing growing numbers of people to rely on food and baby banks to feed their children, is not simply a result of increased production costs. It is also a clear decision to increase profits.

Read more: Ultra-processed food dominates child nutrition in the UK

Parents who do not use the cheapest formula option – and many, as the CMA notes, do not – will pay far more. It can cost up to £1000 a year for families to feed children when using formula produced by one of the dominant players in the market, Danone and Nestlé. Combined, the two companies make up 85% of the market in the UK, according to the CMA report.

While it would be possible to save more than £500 in one year by using the cheapest formula available, not many people are switching brands, apparently due to a lack of information and guidance in the health system. “Unlike other products examined, there is little evidence of parents switching to cheaper branded options as prices have risen and very limited availability of own-brand alternatives,” the CMA stated.

As per current public health and nutrition policies, all infant formula brands are required to have the necessary nutrients for babies to grow healthily. However, the aggressive practices of big corporations often cast doubts on families’ choices, driving them to opt for products under familiar brands, even though direct marketing of baby formula is prohibited in the UK.

Watch: World Breastfeeding Week 2023: Is formula milk a real alternative?

Research published in 2023 by public health expert Rana Conway and her colleagues shows that families often opt for formula brands produced by companies they are familiar with from other contexts, even though they might be aware that the claims made by those companies on formula tins may be far from reflective of the truth. “To be honest, I think most of it just came up from actually what I’d seen over my lifetime of adverts and TV things, and what became like a familiar sort of brand that you’d heard of,” said one of the mothers interviewed in Conway’s study, reflecting on her choice of formula brand.

The UK’s breastfeeding rates are still below optimal levels. With so many in the population depending on baby formula, changes in pricing are certain to have a major impact on the quality of life of thousands of people. In addition to supporting the uptake of breastfeeding among those who can pursue this nutrition path, it is essential to secure other forms of support for parents and carers trying to figure out the best way to feed their infants. Longer, paid maternity leaves, recruitment of more midwives who can guide families through different ways of feeding babies, and stricter regulation of the commercial milk formula industry practices, including price regulation, could all bring significant benefits to child health.

People’s Health Dispatch is a fortnightly bulletin published by the People’s Health Movement and Peoples Dispatch. For more articles and to subscribe to People’s Health Dispatch, click here.