Shortage of infant formula can easily be swept away by political currents

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The February closure of a major infant formula factory 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 blocked infant formula imported from Europe and Canada, and reports of price gouging prompted the Biden administration to ask the Federal Trade Commission to investigate. President Biden has also invoked the Defense Production Act to expedite formula production. Meanwhile, political leaders and even some celebrities have taken to Twitter to recommend that women “try breastfeeding!”

Such erroneous suggestions ignore the serious breastfeeding challenges that many women and babies face, which can be related to, among other things, health issues and limitations at work. But these calls to “Try to breastfeed!” also laying the blame for this supply chain failure on those most affected by the outage.

Make no mistake: the current shortage of infant formula is a food supply chain crisis. Responses to this one, however, differ from responses to other crises in the U.S. food supply chain, such as those of Poultry and fruits and vegetables. Shortages in these industries have never prompted consumers to raise chickens and plant gardens, except in very rare cases of national mobilization for war. Yet today, even amid investigations into the US infant formula industry, many members of the public have been quick to call on mothers to fix the problem themselves.

This answer is not new. A century ago, Benito Mussolini —— the Duke of Italian Fascism – made similar demands of mothers when Italy was rocked by its own shortage of infant formula. Because dictatorships can amplify social inequalities, making them much more visible, the history of Italian fascism can help us understand the relationship between the current crisis in our food supply chain and the measures to demand that mothers and children pay the price.

On December 10, 1925, the Fascist regime in Italy founded the Council for the Protection of Maternity and Childhood, known by the Italian acronym ONMI. The ONMI aimed to reduce 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 1 year old, in Italy in the 1920s, the ONMI cited breastfeeding as the primary means of ensure infant health. But infant formula was then, as it is now, an essential alternative.

The Fascist regime under Mussolini, however, made formula milk the choice of bad mothers, presenting breastfeeding as morally superior, healthier, and the only right way to feed a child. What the regime has neglected to clarify are its economic motives.

In 1926, Mussolini introduced the Battle for the Lira, as part of a broad new policy of economic “autarky”—the protection and promotion of national production. In the name of autarky, imports are heavily taxed. 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 for corporations and big business owners, but workers suffered. Food prices rose as the real value of the lira fell, and food factory workers in particular, many of whom were women, were forced to take pay cuts. At the grocery store, women saw fewer products on the shelves due to import limitations, and they had less money to pay for these meager options due to the revaluation of the lira.

Women faced serious new hardships, and Mussolini’s regime responded not by tackling high food costs or falling wages, but rather by celebrating mothers as the pillars of the Italian family. He congratulated them as they were forced to rely on ONMI soup kitchens to support them. Moreover, these services were limited to nursing mothers.

To receive food, Italian women had to place their reproductive health care under state surveillance. Public clinics included lactation rooms, equipped with scales and clocks to determine the exact amount of breast milk consumed, according to a schedule dictated by the state. In the working class popular case (social housing projects), ONMI volunteers, usually the wives of underage Fascist civil servants, inspected working-class women’s breastfeeding practices, as well as their cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Do not impress the Visitatori (ONMI ‘visitors’) could result in eviction from partially government-funded social housing.

But this was not the only way the fascist regime sought to control women’s health. It has also taken steps to remove the rights of independent women’s health practitioners.

Before the rise of Mussolini, Italian midwives — nicknamed big dangelic, or “angel makers” – usually aided in births and abortions. But the regime effectively banned the work of midwives, criminalizing abortion and banning the use of medical tools, such as forceps, and hygiene measures, such as sterile gloves. Italian women seeking to protect their reproductive health had to rely on those working in ONMI centers, where obstetricians – all men – had to be card-holding members of the fascist party.

Mothers’ choices became even more limited when the Fascist regime’s policies of autarky and imperial expansion led to widespread shortages of infant formula. In 1935, the regime invaded Ethiopia and Mussolini announced the creation of Italian East Africa, prompting the League of Nations to respond with a series of trade sanctions against Italy, cutting off its supply of imported foodstuffs. The reduction in imports meant that there were no more products from Nestlé, the Swiss company that had supplied Italy with most of its infant formula.

The regime responded to the baby formula shortage by adapting its propaganda to promote breast milk as a locally produced food, alongside agricultural produce such as rabbit, rice and grapes. In 1932, nursing mothers even had their own holiday – December 24, to coincide with Mary’s labor pains before Jesus was born.

The scheme also provided economic incentives to private food companies to support breastfeeding. Cooking magazines such as La Cucina Italiana featured nursing 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 embrace of fascist pronatalist policies.

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

But the regime’s efforts to control the health of Italian women and infants have not equaled healthier children. With the ban on abortion, birth rates have increased. More women have died from attempted abortions without medical support. There were more infants, but that meant more infants who needed formula milk. Shortages meant these babies simply diedincreasing the infant mortality rate.

The case of Fascist Italy is illustrative as we assess the debate around formula shortage in the United States today. Once again, a formula shortage has been swept away by populist nationalist campaigns, with Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Tex.) and Representative Elise Stefanik (RN.Y.)among other things, 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 in the midst of child food shortages – not real solutions to the problem. In Mussolini’s case, this meant restricting women’s reproductive rights and dictating how they fed their children, distracting from how his policies had created scarcity in the first place.

For those on the right today, calls to distribute formula milk on the basis of citizenship, or for mothers to breastfeed, are also a way to advance a populist conservative agenda – with its desire to curtail the immigration, as well as her praise of traditional motherhood and the nuclear family. Yet again, these “solutions” would not address the real causes of the infant formula shortage. Nor would they make things better for mothers or babies.

In fact, the case of Fascist Italy shows that they could make matters worse by diverting attention from the real problem and increasing the burden on mothers.

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