The infant milk shortage is not over. Families across the US are struggling to access the right nutrition for their babies after a major supplier stopped production.
“A major issue is the consolidation of the food industry,” said David Hammons, senior lecturer in supply chain management at Missouri State University. “In the US, only a few manufacturers account for most of our food supply.”
“It is time to look at how we can improve our regulatory systems and recall management to ensure this does not continue to happen.”
The cost of extensive regulation
While the formula industry is the most notable case in recent supply chain disasters, it is not the only one. We have seen shortages of many food products with some favorite brands missing from grocery store shelves.
A major reason for these shortcomings? Extensive and often costly regulation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“We naturally want our food production to be well regulated,” Hammons said. “But current regulations are often created by lawmakers with limited understanding of food manufacturing practices.”
“These regulations can make it harder for smaller companies to survive.”
This leads to a consolidated industry, Hammons explains. When only a few companies can afford to stay afloat, there are fewer options when a major event occurs that limits the supply of a particular product.
Another issue that comes into play is batch sizes. When manufacturers create a product, they assign it a code that corresponds to its run or production lot. Batch codes are the numbers you look for on your product when a recall is announced.
These codes can include all products from the same day or even week of production. The large size of these lots can lead to massive recalls when many of these products may be safe to sell.
To help families get the formula they need, the Biden administration invoked the Defense Production Act in May. The law will introduce about 58 million 8-ounce bottle equivalents into the U.S. market by the end of the year.
But this is not a long-term solution. The act required significant slack within the FDA and left many parents worried that they might have to switch their infant from a formula to new foreign brands.
Until the shortages conspired, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) required its members to use only preapproved brands of formula.
But the recent flexibility implemented by WIC may be too late. Families are resistant to switching from one formula to another, fearing that a change could cause digestive problems and other health problems.
“Unnecessary restrictions like this can put undue strain on the supply chain when something goes wrong,” Hammons said. “As long as formula is safe, then parents should be allowed to use it.”
Hammons suggests one more solution: A database to connect manufacturers and distributors with parents and guardians of infants who need specialty formulas.
Premature babies and babies with allergies often need specialized formulas, and there’s no way for families to know when that milk might hit the shelf.
Resources for families
Prevention of future disruptions
So how can we prevent future food supply crises? Hammons has two suggestions:
- Improve food supply chain management systems.
Companies have begun experimenting with reducing batch sizes and enforcing clearer coding for each production run.
“If we can develop smaller, more specific lot codes and the technology to track them, we’ll be able to enforce better recall techniques,” Hammons said. “We won’t see such extensive recalls because we won’t be forced to remove products from our stores that are safe to sell.”
- Work with our regulators to find solutions that can ease consolidation in the food industry.
This shortage has opened the eyes of many legislators and regulatory agencies such as the FDA to the shortcomings of our food industry and the regulations intended to secure it.
“Bigger companies have the power to lobby for regulations that won’t stifle their work, but small companies need to be offered a seat at the table, too,” Hammons said.
“Small companies cannot survive in such a strict regulatory environment, so they go out of business or are forced to sell their business to large companies.”
These changes may ease consolidation and prevent further threats to the health of US families
Explore logistics and supply chain management at MSU