Why Is Baby Formula Getting More Expensive? We Asked The Companies That Make It

The price of the cheapest brand of formula increased by more than 22% last year. So what's going on?!
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Infant formula is now one of the most expensive items parents will be popping in their shopping trolleys during their weekly shop.

The cost has soared over the last year – with the price of the cheapest brand increasing by more than 22%.

Between August 2021 and November 2022, an analysis found Mamia First Infant Milk (900g from Aldi) – considered to be the cheapest infant formula on the market – increased from £6.99 to £8.49. At the time of writing, it had risen again by 10p.

Meanwhile Aptamil 1 First Milk (800g) increased from £11.50 to £13.50, Cow & Gate First Infant Milk (800g at Boots) increased from £8.75 to £10 and SMA Little Steps First Infant Milk (800g at Tesco) rose from £8.25 to £9.

While Aptamil and Cow & Gate’s products have remained the same price, SMA’s milk has since increased again to £9.75.

With most parents needing to buy a new tub of formula every week, this can soon add up. Over the course of the year you can end up spending anywhere between £412 to £650. And if you’re opting for ready-made bottles of formula, that price will increase dramatically.

It’s got to the point where the product is so expensive – and people are so desperate – that shops are putting empty boxes of infant formula on the shelves and locking the actual products behind the tills to prevent theft.

Baby banks have reported enormous increases in referrals for parents struggling to feed their little ones. On top of this, some of the largest food bank networks – including the Trussell Trust and Fareshare – currently have policies in place which prevent their food banks from redistributing formula donations.

The main argument is that parents of young babies could be given follow-on milk in food banks, which is not suitable for little ones under six months old, and that families need proper feeding support via local authorities rather than food banks.

But infant feeding charity Feed UK and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) believe that not providing formula to struggling parents is causing the real harm, because the routes to accessing formula through local authorities can be long-winded – and in the meantime, babies are going hungry.

There are also concerns that the high costs of formula and the cost of living crisis are forcing families to resort to unsafe feeding practices including skipping feeds, watering down formula or adding cereal.

So, why is infant formula so expensive?

Strong inflationary pressures over the last year – “including increased costs in producing, storing and transporting our products” – are to blame for the rise in price, according to a spokesperson for Danone UK & Ireland, which creates Aptamil and Cow & Gate products.

The British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA), which represents the formula milk industry, said its members are facing “significant and unprecedented cost increases”.

“The reasons for those increases are many – global supply chain issues, rising energy costs, and impacts of climate change on farming,” a spokesperson told HuffPost UK.

BSNA said its members “recognise the pressure on many families due to the rising cost of living and seek to offer a range of options for parents, while responsibly and sustainably managing increases in ingredient and manufacturing costs”.

There have also been supply chain issues resulting in infant formula shortages in the UK and US in the past two years. The US is still very much experiencing shortages in stores – especially in more rural areas.

A spokesperson for HiPP, which also produces infant formula, said the company has seen “big changes” to its costs over the last year including raw ingredients, packaging, energy, distribution, storage and more.

“Our aim is now – and has always been – to enable parents to choose and be able to trust our high-quality organic products, and we can only do that if we pass on some of these extra costs,” they said.

There’s also a big question here on why costs vary so much between brands, especially when formula milks available on supermarket shelves are “all nutritionally equivalent”.

Shel Banks, an infant feeding specialist, previously told Channel 4 Dispatches: “There are very clear European Standard Guidelines on the maximum and minimum levels of everything – the proteins, the fats, the carbohydrates – there’s nothing to choose between them in terms of nutrition at all.”

At the time, BNSA told the programme that different formulas have “varying levels of ingredients” and manufacturers can add ingredients “beyond the legal minimum requirements”.

NHS guidance recommends that babies are exclusively breastfed for the first year of their lives. However, data shows that the majority of babies will be partially or fully formula fed by the time they are 6-8 weeks old.

It’s big business. Sales from commercial formula milk have rapidly increased over the past 20 years and are now at more than $55 billion (£45bn) a year.

Is there any help available to buy infant formula?

For low income households or those on Universal Credit, some help is available in the form of Healthy Start vouchers – however the cash value of these vouchers is £8.50 per week, which is no longer enough to cover the cost of most types of infant formula.

In December, charities called for the value of Healthy Start allowance to increase to £10 a week to more realistically support families with formula-dependent infants. The last increase was in April 2021, when the value of vouchers for parents of children aged under one rose from £6.20 a week to £8.50.

HuffPost UK understands there are no plans by the government to change this. A spokesperson said: “We are committed to promoting a healthy diet for children and providing support to families who need it the most through our Healthy Start scheme.

“The government is also supporting people with the cost-of-living crisis with £1,200 for the most vulnerable households.”