While supply chain problems brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted supplies over the past year, a recent shutdown of a major production facility in Michigan has made the situation worse, Canadian retailers say.
In February, Abbott recalled several major brands and shut down its Sturgis, Mich., factory when federal officials concluded four babies suffered bacterial infections after consuming powdered infant formula from the facility. Two of the infants died.
The closure has left American parents scrambling to find baby formula. But the same level of shortages has not been seen in Canada yet.
“Some retailers are reporting that the strong majority of this section (baby formula) within their stores is stocked,” said Michelle Wasylyshen, national spokeswoman for Retail Council Canada.
According to Wasylyshen, retailers say that formula supply has been an ongoing issue since mid-2021, but it has gotten “considerably worse” since the Abbott recall and the closure of its largest formula manufacturing plant in the U.S.
“Abbott is still not shipping any SKU (stock keeping unit) that was impacted by the recall,” she told Global News in an email on Tuesday.
“Specialized formula SKUs that do not have substitutions have been impacted for the past nine months.”
Canadian retailer Loblaw said it is experiencing “supply issues” for one brand of baby formula due to a recall. The company did not respond to a request by Global News to specify the brand by the time of publication.
“While this has left holes in our shelves, we do have a good supply of formula from our other vendors,” Loblaw said.
Walmart Canada says industry-wide supply challenges with the product — used as a breast milk substitute to feed children less than a year old — have “persisted for a number of years”.
“Despite these challenges, we continue to work closely with our suppliers to secure a strong supply of baby formula across multiple brands and formats (concentrates, powder and ready-to-feed), to make available for sale both in-store and online,” a Walmart spokesperson told Global News on Tuesday.
In the U.S., major retailers including CVS and Walgreens have begun limiting purchases to three containers per customer to try to keep formula in stock.
On Monday, White House press secretary Jenn Psaki said the Food and Drug Administration was “working around the clock to address any possible shortages.”
On Tuesday, the FDA said in a statement it was working with U.S. manufacturers to increase their output and streamlining paperwork to allow more imports.
“Ensuring the availability of safe, sole-source nutrition products like infant formula is of the utmost importance to the FDA,” Robert M. Califf, commissioner of the agency, said.
Across the U.S. about 40 per cent of large retail stores are out of stock, up from 31 per cent in mid-April, according to Datasembly, a data analytics firm.
The FDA has listed roughly 50 products of Similac, EleCare and Alimentum that are included in the Abbott recall.
Abbott said on Wednesday it could restart production at the Michigan facility within two weeks, subject to FDA’s approval.
In Canada, because different retailers utilize different supply chains, the impact can vary from one to another, said Wasylyshen of RCC.
Last month, a Kingston, Ont., baby formula maker finalized a deal with goat farmers in Ontario and Quebec to get a steady supply of one of its main ingredients. The deal will supply goat’s milk to the Canada Royal Milk plant.
In 2019, Costco Wholesale Canada Ltd. recalled Kirkland Signature’s Non-GMO Infant Formula for Babies Sensitive to Lactose due to possible contamination by Cronobacter bacteria.
— with files from The Associated Press, The Canadian Press and Reuters