Some thoughts on the baby formula shortage

You know, there are not many things about politics that really chap me anymore. I feel like we have been living in an artificial boom-bust-boom-bust cycle more or less since the 1990s, both economically and intellectually. We have an election industry now, bent on convincing folks that each upcoming election is “the most important election of our lifetime.” They’ve invented fascists, Manchurian candidates, race wars, plagues. Every political season offers some fresh new hell where they are willing to break the entire world just to capture your attention for 15 minutes. I am so fucking sick of it all there are no words.

But the baby formula shortage – this is genuinely beginning to weigh on my soul.

I first noticed the baby formula problem about a month ago when we were on vacation in Georgia and North Carolina. We made several trips to local grocery stores in both states, and I saw that the baby formula was kept in literal cages behind the customer service counter.

To be honest, my first thoughts were about shoplifting. My husband I discussed how people stealing everyday items had obviously become out-of-control, but we agreed that no woman should ever be prosecuted for stealing baby formula. Lock up the folks taking crowbars to Louis Vuitton so they can hawk overpriced bags on Facebook Marketplace, I do not care. But feeding babies is off-limits. You just don’t go there.

I did not consider what was happening in the weeks that followed. But then I started to see hot-takes on Abbott Laboratories on finance sites. Once I finally appreciated the scope of the shortage, I started to feel ill.

Some time ago, I wrote a long post telling our birth story – Having a preemie will make you re-think the abortion “debate.”

I went into labor with our daughter at the beginning of my third trimester. She is perfectly healthy and a little prodigy now. Back then, however, she had myriad health issues that involved her spending most of her first year in the hospital. It is not lost on me that many parents would have terminated such a pregnancy over the inconvenience alone. You can drop everything and spend a year with a special needs child or you can rack up the billable hours to lease a Lexus that looks like any other Lexus in the suburbs. Such a personal decision!

Most folks who have not had preemies or known anyone who has had a preemie do not realize this, but our society has made enormous progress at treating and releasing preemies even when they seem ridiculously small to go anywhere. And a lot of that story is about nutrition. We can feed babies such that they grow and develop rapidly, quickly closing any gaps between preemies and babies that were carried to term. Nutrition also helps babies that have gone through extreme medical procedures heal.

One of our daughter’s medical issues was tracheoesophageal fistula, thanks to a de novo birth defect (a fluke defect with no known origin). In short, her esophagus did not connect to her stomach, which had to be cured by surgery. She could not physically swallow anything. But she would only survive the surgery after she had increased in weight sufficiently. For most of her early months, she was nourished through a feeding tube straight into her stomach.

While I could still produce breast milk (through pumping – our daughter was in an incubator after she was born), the doctors fed her breastmilk. But the stress of being in the NICU for weeks eventually put an end to that. I wish it had not, but those were the cards we were dealt. After that, it was formula.

Even after our daughter had managed to survive (very much against the odds) those early months, the surgery, and the recovery, and was released from the hospital at a small fraction of what a “normal” baby would weigh by that point in development, our daughter was still being fed through a feeding tube with formula. We went home to a mousetrap of machinery rigged to accomplish this task on a regular schedule. Along with breathing and heart monitors to alert us to episodes of apnea, which preemies are prone to. This was our first six months of parenthood.

Eventually the feeding tube was removed. Eventually we taught her how to drink from a bottle (which is surprisingly difficult for an infant that has not been able to feed by mouth because of internal deformities). Eventually she started eating baby food and crawling and the doctor’s appointments became more sporadic and voluntary. Eventually it was all over and we had a regular kid and problems like anchoring bookshelves to the wall because she was trying to climb them. Eventually she was playing chess, learning Latin, writing computer code, and taking fencing lessons.

But for a long time, our hopes of raising a kid at all depended on formula. And I never thought twice about it because we were not living from one fake Armageddon to the next politically back then. It was, as they say, a simpler time.

When I look at what is happening now, I cannot resist putting myself back into my own shoes ten years ago. What would I have done? It was a miracle to get a full night’s rest without alarms going off or creeping in to check to make sure everything was okay. How would I have added driving around my state – or even out of state – to get baby formula by the time our daughter required it? Would we have had to quit our jobs, as the whole process of even having a kid had depleted all of our accumulated time off? You better believe there are many parents making decisions exactly like that right now. And because of what?

The FDA opted to close the Abbott Labs facilities way back in February, as they investigated claims related to a small number of illnesses that everyone agrees had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of their operations. They checked it out, even took the bold step of issuing a recall, and it amounted to nothing because the facilities were not the cause of the outbreak – if one can even call four unrelated cases an outbreak. But then they decided to leave them closed for months with no justification whatsoever. A quiet battle between the regulator and regulated broke out, with no one noticing as the shelves became increasingly bare. Not just for babies with specialized conditions, but for vulnerable adults with gastrointestinal issues. You have stomach cancer? Tough shit. Have a steak. Oh, you can’t physically digest steak? Well, I guess you can starve then.

One of my Twitter friends has been beseeching her favorite culinary YouTubers to reverse-engineer baby formula and give parents instructions on how to make their own. It’s a noble endeavor, no doubt. I’m just not sure what to think of it as a practical matter.

When our daughter was dealing with her severe medical issues, I came to regard baby formula as a type of medicine. In retrospect, I do not know how fair that is. Is it simply fattening content to get a baby up to speed? Are the different types of formula interchangeable despite their branding, like the 155 types of cereal on the cereal aisle? I don’t know. But I cannot imagine being in the shoes of a parent trying to decide on the fly whom to believe on this point.

I can tell you, when my kid was still attached to machines, I probably would not have felt comfortable sending mashed bananas and molasses through the tubes like the folks living in some Luddite homesteading fantasy are talking about now. For one thing, it probably would not have worked physically. But after covid, I am pretty down with idea that pharmaceutical companies and pseudo-pharmaceuticals are at least somewhat full of crap. And there’s no telling what I would have done if legitimate starvation was on the table.

The administration is telling people to go to a hospital… for food. Food that should be in a grocery store. For purposes that their insurance companies will probably count as elective, such that they are financially responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars of hospitalization costs so they could simply fucking eat. While they doomscroll Twitter, listening to baby-haters on the far-left tell them they should not have had children and trad folks on the far-right scold them for not breastfeeding their children until they were old enough to drive, like milk shoots out of every woman’s boobs indefinitely on command.

This is not a civilized country anymore.

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