Parents in the United States are facing an infant formula shortage — and some Canadians are running into the same struggle, especially when it comes to hypoallergenic formula.
Roughly 40 per cent of infant formula that’s normally available is out of stock in more than 11,000 stores in the US, according to online retail analyst Datasembly, a spike from the two to eight per cent seen during the first half of 2021.
This comes after the US Food and Drug Administration issued a recall in February for powdered formula products from Abbott Nutrition that were produced in a Sturgis, Michigan, facility. The agency said the recall was due to risk of bacterial infections like salmonella.
In Canada, retailers say they have not been hit as hard by the shortages, though the national spokesperson for the Retail Council of Canada said she’s heard from one retailer that has struggled to keep a steady supply of formula available since 2021.
“It has been considerably worse since Abbott’s recall in February,” said Michelle Wasylyshen in an email.
For Loblaw, that recall has affected its ability to stock certain kinds of formula, but the company said that it’s found alternatives.
“While this has left holes in our shelves, we do have a good supply of formula from our other vendors,” a statement from Loblaw Companies said.
What parents rely on
The recalled products from Abbott are hypoallergenic formulas — a product that parents like Lindsay Ward rely on.
Ward’s seven-month-old son has a cow milk protein intolerance. She said that it took three months to find a formula that Lukas could drink without having an allergic reaction: Abbott’s Similac Alimentum formula.
“That’s the one formula that has worked,” the Montreal mother said.
Now, she’s struggling to find it; she said she only got some recently after posting about it on an online community group.
“You feel guilty, because you don’t want to feel like you’re taking supply from anyone else,” she said.
Ward said she’s even resorted to driving to the US, where she’s found some stock — despite the shortages there.
Her concerns are echoed by a pharmacist in her city who said her drug store is facing a shortage of Abbott products.
“In the last few months, we’ve noticed a drastic shortage of certain baby formulations,” said David Banon, co-owner of a Pharmaprix in Montreal, noting the biggest concern is around hypoallergenic formula.
The pharmacist said he’s been in touch with Abbott, and he said the company told him its products should be fully in stock by August.
“We are doing everything we can to address the infant formula supply shortage,” a statement by Abbott said. “We’re prioritizing production of infant formula products to help replenish the supply in the market.”
The company said it’s also flying in stock of the formula every day from its FDA-registered facility in Ireland to try to meet demand.
For worried parents, Banon suggests speaking with a health-care professional who might be able to find alternatives.
Ward said she’s been in touch with her son’s doctor and pharmacist, but their recommendations were for formulas that hadn’t worked for her son in the past.
“We’ve exhausted all of our options,” she said.
US demand for formula different from Canada
Although parents are reporting challenges with finding some formula products in Canada, the shortage appears to be more acute in the United States.
“I think we’re seeing a bit of a different picture, partly because the market is different and also because our usage of these products is different,” said Michelle Pensa Branco, co-founder of SafelyFed Canada.
Pensa Branco attributes the difference to a higher of breastfeeding in Canada as well as a national program in the US that buys up a lot of formula from certain brands.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children provides federal grants to fund a range of products and services to low-income women and children. Those eligible for support are provided with vouchers to purchase child-care products, including infant formula, that have been approved by the program.
“There’s a pretty simple solution to the issue that they’re having, which is allow supermarkets to accept the vouchers for any formula,” said Pensa Branco. “Unfortunately, there are contractual reasons why that doesn’t happen.”
‘No need to panic’
The shortages in the US have been increased by what’s known as panic buying.
Shortages are accelerated when panic sets in, says Feyza Sahinyazan, an assistant professor of business at Simon Fraser University.
Sahinyazan says the recall of Abbott products shifted the demand toward other products in the United States, with fearful parents panic buying more of what’s available.
“Fear of shortage is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said, adding that the same level of fear doesn’t appear to have been set in among Canadian parents.
She emphasized that even in the US, 60 per cent of products are still in stock.
“Our supply chains, even though they’re very fragile, the retailers, the manufacturers have learned how to bounce back, how to supply from different sources, how to ensure that their customers are not disappointed,” Sahinyazan said.
Pensa Branko says parents shouldn’t feel especially attached to one particular brand of infant formula.
“There’s no reason why you can’t change from one type to another,” said Pensa Branco. “You should just purchase whatever works for your family and what’s available in your community at any given time.”
Another solution is to supplement an infant’s diet with more breastmilk or start moving an infant toward solid food as soon as possible, she said.
“I want to discourage people from doing things like buying up a whole bunch of formula and storing it aside,” she said.