Most parents in Canada who need specialized formula to feed their babies now have to order formula through a pharmacy due to a voluntary directive by Health Canada aimed at rationing limited supplies amid a nationwide shortage.
In June, Health Canada issued national recommendations suggesting hypoallergenic baby formula be dispensed by pharmacists “to ensure they can be distributed equally,” according to a statement from Health Canada provided to Global News.
Since then, this practice has been adopted across the country as the availability of certain types of specialized formulas continues to be limited, Health Canada says.
“The recommendation to order hypoallergenic infant formula at the pharmacy counter was implemented to effectively manage the limited supply and ensure that those infants who need it will receive it,” said Andre Gagnon, a spokesperson for Health Canada.
“This measure allows Health Canada and its provincial and territorial counterparts to have a detailed understanding of the national supply and to quickly adjust allocation if an urgent need is identified.”
Regular formula remains widely available in Canada and does not require special access over the counter at pharmacies, Health Canada added.
The specialized formula shortage was triggered by the February shutdown of Abbott Nutrition, a key infant formula manufacturing plant in Michigan, which was closed due to a massive recall of some of its products.
Most of the baby formula available in Canada comes from the United States. Abbott Nutrition makes the popular Similac and Alimentum formula brands.
After restarting its formula production in May, Abbott was forced to close again on June 16 due to damage from a severe storm. Its facility once again resumed production last month, and it is ramping up gradually, initially focusing on specialized formulas.
It is expected to take several months until products are available to consumers in their usual quantities, Health Canada says.
In the meantime, the federal government acquired shipments of imported hypoallergenic formula in July, some of which were not previously sold in Canada, due largely to Canadian labeling requirements.
These shipments have stabilized the national supply, Health Canada says, but the situation will remain sensitive until the Abbott facility in Michigan is back to its full production capacity.
“Health Canada is therefore maintaining its recommendation that hypoallergenic formula should be available to families through ordering at the pharmacy counter and continues to emphasize the need to conserve specialized formulas for those who need it.”
Danielle Paes, chief pharmacist officer with the Canadian Pharmacists Association, says the shortage only affects infants who have allergies to regular formula or soy-based products, which is not an overwhelming number of people. But for those families that have been affected, the last few months of limited supplies have been stressful.
“It can be very highly distressing for parents and caregivers, and so trying to make sure that we have everything in place to support them and making sure that pharmacies and pharmacists have everything that they need to support families and caregivers in navigating through this is really important,” Paes said.
“We’ve been working very closely with Health Canada to make sure that we’re able to get the information to everybody that needs it.”
Families who need extensively hydrolyzed and amino acid-based formulas do not need a prescription to access these products, unless they require one for provincial coverage — and pharmacies have been working to ensure new brands imported during the shortage are covered.
But anyone who does need to purchase hypoallergenic formula for their infants is asked to order from their local pharmacy ahead of time, as Health Canada has asked pharmacies not to keep excess stock to preserve supply.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a host of supply chain issues that have led to many product and drug shortages over the last two-and-a-half years, so this is not a new situation for pharmacists to handle, says Justin Bates, CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association.
Pharmacists are now having more conversations with parents to help them navigate their options and ensure they have access to the formula products that are best for their infants, he said.
This has been a “huge source of stress” for many parents and caregivers who rely on specialized formula to feed their babies, he said.
“You’re dealing with a very vulnerable population in the infant cohort, and nutrition, obviously, is huge in the early years so people worry about, is this the bottom in terms of supply or are we going to see even further supply shortages?” Bates said.
Keeping specialized formula behind pharmacy counters for now will prevent hoarding and ensure these products are accessible to those who need it most, he added.
“If people hoard, then you’re not able to get it to everybody who needs it, so what we’re doing is staggering it and making sure there’s stability in that supply chain so that everybody that needs it will get it.”