Baby formula shortage can easily get swept up in political currents

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The February closure of a major infant formula plant, and related recalls of popular formula brands such as Similac and EleCare, have contributed to the infant formula shortage. Depression-era protections for the American dairy industry have blocked imported infant formula from Europe and Canada, and reports of price gouging have prompted the Biden administration to call on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate. President Biden has also invoked the Defense Production Act to speed production of formula. Meanwhile, political leaders and even some celebrities have taken to Twitter to recommend that women “Try breastfeeding!”

Such misguided suggestions dismiss the serious challenges many women and babies face around breastfeeding, which can be related to, among other things, health concerns and work limitations. But those calls to “Try breastfeeding!” also shift the responsibility for this supply chain failure onto the very people most affected by the breakdown.

Make no mistake: The current infant formula shortage is a food supply chain crisis. The responses to it, however, differ from the responses to other American food supply chain crises, such as those for poultry and fruits and vegetables. Shortages in those industries have never led to calls for consumers to raise chickens and plant gardens, except in very rare cases of national war mobilization. Yet today, even amid investigations into the American baby formula industry, many in the public have been quick to ask mothers to solve the problem themselves.

This response isn’t new. A century ago, Benito Mussolini —— the Duce of Italian fascism — made similar demands of mothers when Italy was rocked by its own formula shortage. Because dictatorships can magnify social inequalities, making them far more visible, the history of Italian fascism can help us understand the relationship between our current food supply chain crisis and moves to demand that mothers and children pay the price.

On Dec. 10, 1925, the fascist regime in Italy founded the Board for the Protection of Motherhood and Childhood, known by the Italian acronym ONMI. ONMI aimed to decrease infant mortality, particularly from tuberculosis, and to promote the benefits of breastfeeding. Just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends breastfeeding as the best source of nutrition for infants up to age 1, in Italy in the 1920s, ONMI cited breastfeeding as the primary means to ensure infant health. But infant formula was then, as it is now, a critical alternative.

The fascist regime under Mussolini, however, cast infant formula as the choice of bad mothers, pitching breastfeeding as morally superior, healthier and the only right way to feed a child. What the regime neglected to clarify were its economic motives.

In 1926, Mussolini introduced the Battle for the Lira, part of a broad new policy for economic “autarky” — the protection and promotion of domestic production. In the name of autarky, imports were taxed heavily. In theory, this protected Italian businesses and labor, but it also meant that consumers paid high prices for many goods, including food.

Fascist autarky was a boon to corporations and large-business owners, but workers suffered. Food prices rose while the real value of the lira fell, and food factory workers especially, many of them women, were pressured into accepting wage cuts. At the grocer, women saw fewer products on the shelves due to limitations on imports, and they had less money to pay for those meager options due to the revalued lira.

Women confronted serious new hardships, and Mussolini’s regime responded not by addressing high food costs or depressed wages but instead by celebrating mothers as the pillars of the Italian family. It paid them in compliments as they were forced to rely on ONMI soup kitchens for support. What’s more, these services were limited to breastfeeding mothers.

To receive food, Italian women had to place their reproductive health care under state surveillance. Public clinics included lactation rooms, complete with scales and clocks to determine the exact amount of breastmilk consumed, according to a state-dictated schedule. In the working-class case popolari (public housing projects), ONMI volunteers, typically the wives of minor fascist officials, inspected working-class women’s breastfeeding practices, along with their cooking, cleaning and child care. Failing to impress the Visitatori (ONMI’s “visitors”) could result in being kicked out of the partially government-funded public housing.

But this wasn’t the only way the fascist regime sought to control women’s health. It also made moves to strip away the rights of independent women’s health-care practitioners.

Before the rise of Mussolini, Italian midwives — nicknamed fattor dangeli, or “angel makers” — commonly aided in births and abortions. But the regime effectively prohibited the work of midwives, criminalizing abortion and outlawing the use of medical tools, such as forceps, and hygienic measures, like sterile gloves. Italian women seeking to protect their reproductive health had to rely on those working in the ONMI centers, where obstetricians — all of them men — were required to be card-carrying members of the Fascist Party.

The choices mothers had became even more limited when the fascist regime’s policies of autarky and imperial expansion led to widespread infant formula shortages. In 1935, the regime invaded Ethiopia, and Mussolini heralded the establishment of Italian East Africa — prompting the League of Nations to respond with a raft of trade sanctions against Italy, cutting off its supply of imported foodstuffs. Curtailed imports meant no more products from Nestlé, the Swiss company that had supplied Italy with the bulk of its infant formula.

The regime responded to the formula shortage by adapting its propaganda to promote breastmilk as a domestically produced food, alongside agricultural products such as rabbit, rice and grapes. In 1932, breastfeeding mothers even got their own holiday — Dec. 24, to coincide with Mary’s labor pains before the birth of Jesus.

The regime also provided economic incentives for private food companies to support breastfeeding. Cooking magazines such as La Cucina Italiana featured breastfeeding mothers as cover girls. Perugina Chocolates required employees to breastfeed in the factory nursery. They also photographed their breastfeeding employees, and used these images to advertise their company’s patriotic adherence to fascist pronatalist policies.

Shadow networks in major cities provided urban women with more complete reproductive health care that included both abortions and formula access, but at usurious rates — and at the risk of jail time. Even these options were out of reach for working-class and rural women.

But the regime’s efforts to control the health of Italian women and infants did not equal more healthy children. With abortion outlawed, birthrates rose. More women died due to attempts at abortion without medical support. There were more infants, but that meant more infants that needed formula. Shortages meant that those babies simply died, raising the infant mortality rate.

The case of fascist Italy is illustrative as we assess the debate around the formula shortage in the United States today. Once again, a formula shortage has gotten swept up in populist nationalist campaigns, with Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Tex.) and Rep Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), among others, suggesting that the solution to the formula crisis would be for the United States to stop feeding the children of undocumented immigrants.

But fascist Italy reveals that such arguments are a way to advance a political agenda amid an infant food shortage — not actual solutions to the problem. In Mussolini’s case, that meant restricting women’s reproductive rights and dictating how they fed their children, distracting from how his policies had created the shortage in the first place.

For those on the right today, calls to distribute formula on the basis of citizenship, or for mothers to breastfeed, are similarly a way to push a populist conservative agenda — with its desire to restrict immigration, as well as its lionization of traditional motherhood and the nuclear family. Yet, again, these “solutions” would not address the actual causes of the formula shortage. Nor would they make things better for mothers or babies.

In fact, the case of fascist Italy shows they might make things worse by distracting from the real problem and increasing the burden on mothers.

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