Why the United States is facing a shortage of milk powder

On social networks, hundreds of photos show empty supermarket shelves, and yet they do not come from Russia, where international sanctions nevertheless have direct repercussions on household consumption. These photos are posted by Americans, who are worried about not finding powdered milk for their children, while 75% of infants in the country receive it for their diet. And for good reason, the United States is facing a real shortage. The American site Datasembly, which studies the evolution of prices, even assures that “children’s milk is now the product for which the shortage is the most serious”. Thus, in 11,000 stores, more than 40% of stocks are sold out.

Not really, at least not directly. The crisis in Ukraine, and the war that followed, led to a rise in prices in certain sectors, particularly in the energy sector. The specter of inflation quickly worried consumers, who, to hedge against a future increase in the price of milk powder, began to stock up. Massive purchases that manufacturers have not compensated.

But the war in Ukraine alone cannot explain the shortage. No product necessary for the manufacture of powdered milk is imported from Ukraine and even if the panic of seeing the cost of a non-substitutable product skyrocket has worried households, the reason for the shortage is to be found within from the country.

It is more relevant to analyze the consequences of a health scandal for which the pharmaceutical company Abbott Nitrition is responsible, which markets several brands of powdered milk, including Similac, consumed by millions of Americans. Last February, at the request of the health authorities, it had to recall its products after serious cases of poisoning food have been identified in infants. Four children had, in fact, been infected with the bacteria “cronobacter”, which can cause serious infections in the youngest. And while two of them lost their lives, traces of this bacterium were found in an Abott Nutrition factory in Michigan. After investigation, the American drug agency concluded that the group was guilty of a lack of hygiene, which, to date, has not resumed production.

This Wednesday, May 11, the group said it was working “to increase supply by flying Similac from the Cootehill site in Ireland and producing more liquid Similac and Alimentum”. Subject to the authorization of the American drug agency, the production of milk powder could resume within two weeks.

Before this health scandal, available stocks of powdered milk had already decreased by 10% due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Producers depend on certain ingredients imported from abroad, particularly China, for manufacturing, and have seen this supply halted with the stoppage of international freight.

But this obstacle in the production chain cannot explain the current situation since the other products affected by the coronavirus crisis, in particular in the textile and IT sectors, do not deplore a shortage. Accused of having seen nothing coming and summoned by the citizens to react, the White House indicated, this Thursday, that it would quickly announce measures.

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