CLAIM: The current baby formula shortage was created by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates because he invested in a company that makes artificial breast milk.
THE FACTS: The investment by Gates’ firm, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, has nothing to do with the recent baby formula shortage, according to experts.
Shoppers searching for the product have encountered empty shelves in recent days, leading some social media users to speculate about the cause of the scarcity. Posts on social media, predominantly Facebook and Twitter, are suggesting that an investment by Gates in a biotech startup called Biomilq is linked to the shortage. Biomilq is working to create a lab-produced breast milk alternative using cultured human mammary cells, according to the company’s website.
One tweet pushing the baseless theory stated, “Bill Gates is heavily invested in lab produced breast milk? And now we have a baby formula shortage?” The post received more than 15,000 likes, and linked to a June 2020 CNBC story about Gates’ firm’s investment. But the claims are flawed for several reasons, including that the product is not available yet and experts say such an investment wouldn’t have the power to cause or prevent the existing shortage.
Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investment firm focused on climate change founded by the billionaire philanthropist, granted some initial funding for Biomilq in June 2020, the investment group confirmed in a statement to the AP. But it clarified that investment decisions are made by the firm's leadership, and neither Bill Gates nor other board members or investors are "involved in every investment decision.” Some posts making the false claims also mentioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. While Zuckerberg, along with other prominent investors in technology, was involved with the investment firm when it was first launched in 2015, Zuckerberg is not listed as an investor or board member on the firm’s site. The spokesperson also confirmed to the AP that Zuckerberg is not currently a board member or investor.
Further, Biomilq is not available to consumers yet. Kelli Reifschneider, the company’s head of business, said the product is still in the research and development phase and likely wouldn’t be offered for sale for at least another four years. Assertions that investments in the company would have impacted the current shortage are also false. The shortage has been caused by ongoing supply disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, and exacerbated by a safety recall from Abbott Nutrition, a company that makes several major brands of powdered formula, two experts told the AP. Abbott is one of only a handful of companies that produce most of the U.S. formula supply, so its recall and subsequent factory shutdown wiped out a large segment of the market, the AP has reported. Rachna Shah, a University of Minnesota professor specializing in supply chains and operations, and Keely L. Croxton, a professor of logistics at Ohio State University who researches supply chain resilience, told the AP that there’s no evidence Gates’ investment would have influenced the shortage. “Very large players can constrain the competition in the market, and when there is no competition, prices will go higher and/or they will control the supply,” Shah said, adding, “I don’t think Bill Gates’ investment in this has anything to do with the current shortage that we’re seeing.” Even if Biomilq was on the market, the two experts said it’s unlikely the product would have the power to either prevent or cause the situation.
— Associated Press writer Karena Phan in New York contributed this report.