July 5, 2022

Baby Formula Shortage Has an Aggravating Factor: Few Producers

“We’ve got four companies making about 90 percent of the formula in this country, which we should probably take a look at,” Mr. Buttigieg said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Today, Abbott is the biggest player. Mead Johnson, which is owned by the conglomerate Reckitt Benckiser, and Perrigo, which makes generic formula for retailers, control another 31 percent. Nestlé controls less than 8 percent.

In part, the lack of competition stems from simple math: Few companies or investors are eager to jump into the infant formula industry because its growth is tied to the nation’s birth rate, which held steady for decades until it began dropping in 2007.

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 or do not have all of the required nutrients listed. This week, the F.D.A. said it would relax some regulations to allow for more imports into the United States.

Trade rules contained in the United States Mexico Canada Agreement, which replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement, also significantly discourage 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.

But perhaps the biggest barrier to new entrants is the structure of a program that aims to help low-income families obtain formula. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, better known as WIC, is a federally funded program that provides grants to states to ensure that low-income pregnant or postpartum women and their children have access to food.

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/20/business/economy/baby-formula-shortage-market.html

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