The Road Less Traveledby Laura Modi
Change is hard. But it shouldn't be impossible.
The formula industry in the US needs to see change and parents are speaking out about it. There’s a black market for conventional European formula with pared-down, quality ingredients. I fed it to my own children out of guilt, curiosity, and principle. Due to societal pressure on parents or industry practices, formula has become a very sensitive space and touchy subject. Parents no longer have to accept the status quo– we are building the companies we desire. That’s Bobbie.
Infant Formula is not like any other product --
It’s heavily regulated
It’s a growing necessity
It’s dominated by few, large players
It’s for the most vulnerable consumers -- our babies.
What makes this industry so complex and why are we in need for change?
The Black Market
Wherever there’s a black market, there’s a problem to be solved.
Understanding what parents want from formula starts with knowing about the black market. It might be the most underestimated black market of our generation! — so out in the open, it doesn’t feel illegal. “My formula isn’t illegal, I was able to buy it online” Mom confesses. Whether it’s from third-party sites or friends and family returning from transatlantic trips with suitcases full of it, more US parents are feeding their babies European formula. And, even though these products aren’t going through the FDA, many medical experts are still recommending them for their high-quality ingredients and tighter nutritional ranges.
A recent Bobbie survey found that:
It’s a hot topic among millennial parents in the US and it’s only growing, with dedicated Facebook groups to discuss and trade brands like HiPP & Holle. These communities share tips on where to get discounts and what to do if their current supplier runs out. Seem crazy? Parents don’t think so. While the New York Times recently reported that these imports could be dangerous, the June 2019 article attracted hundreds of dismissive comments from passionate parents on the publication’s Facebook page:
It’s not a question of How the black market exists, but rather Why?
The desire for stricter standards and better ingredients.
The two most common responses from parents asked about the merits of European formula are stricter standards and better ingredients. And these go hand-in-hand.
To illustrate this, a couple of examples come to mind.
- The restriction on sugar sources. The US doesn’t restrict corn syrup in infant formula, so it can be used to make up 100% of the carbohydrate. Meanwhile, the EU strictly limits corn syrup to less than 50%.
- Tighter nutrient ranges. US infant formula is allowed to have almost double the iron concentration permitted in the EU. The US range is between 0.15–3.30 mg/100kcal iron, while the EU’s is 0.3–1.7 mg/100kcal iron.
After studying everything imaginable about this industry for the last few years, I’ve realized the choice of certain ingredients and the quantity of those ingredients is what sets brands apart and ultimately, why European formula is so sought after.
The dilemma of why there are not more (desirable) options
To be regarded as an infant formula in the US, there are many requirements, as there should be. One major bottleneck is, ‘Who will manufacture the formula?’ This is not like a granola bar where there are countless facilities who will whip up your product with favorable terms.
- Limited facilities: There are only 4 contract manufacturing facilities that make formula compared to a list of 80 who make baby snacks.
- Limited capacity: Priority is given to larger customers who have the capital to meet the multi-million dollar minimum orders.
- Defined supply chain: These facilities have preexisting contracts with suppliers that make it difficult to switch ingredients or sources.
Why aren’t there more options? Primarily because infant formula is regulated much more strictly than food, with ‘additional steps’ that manufacturers must adhere to — and many don’t want to go through the process. There’s no real pressure coming from the public because they’re turning elsewhere: if the black market didn’t exist, we might be seeing a different landscape in the US. Then again, if the black market was shut down we’d be hearing a resounding uproar from parents.
I believe that parents have never been in a better position to lead. I believe that regulators need to step up and listen to the community. I believe that newcomers are essential for incentivizing industry growth. I believe that silence is not an option. I believe that advocacy is a responsibility. And I believe nothing is impossible.
The big takeaway:
The EU and the US have separate regulatory standards when it comes to producing and selling formula. This pertains to everything about it — from how you manufacture, to even the labeling. While on the surface they may appear similar, there are nuances that prevent formula from being easily transferable from one place to the other, legally.
I’m comparing the EU and US formula market in this write up, to simply paint the picture of the growth we have ahead in the US. I’m not proposing that the US should have European formula readily available. I’m saying that how we view European quality, with better ingredients, tighter standards should be indisputably, unequivocally how we view our formula here in the US too. It’s ridiculous that baseline European quality is perceived as a premium, exclusive product in the US.
This industry doesn’t always have the best reputation: It’s complex and majorly controversial. We exist to change that. We are partnering with the regulators and manufacturing groups to drive the needed change this industry and know it will move us all forward.
In Summary: I believe that parents have never been in a better position to lead the charge. I believe that regulators need to step up and listen to the community. I believe that newcomers are essential for incentivizing industry growth. I believe that silence on the topic is not an option. I believe that advocacy is a responsibility. And I believe nothing is impossible.
Excited and never more determined.