Nearly a year into infant formula shortages in Canada, many families are still struggling to find products on the shelves, and experts warn the supply issue may continue for some time yet.
Sabrina Collins from Kingston, Ont., says she has not been able to find a needed brand of infant formula for her six-month-old son Jasper. Her son usually drinks Nestle Good Start Soothe, a formula designed for babies with sensitive stomachs. But on March 18, the company issued a recall on the product sold in Canada due to a potential bacteria contamination.
Because she can’t find an equivalent formula for the recalled product, she has to “buy whatever is on the shelf” leaving her baby drinking formula that upsets his stomach.
“There will be nights where he’ll be up and be in lots of pain. And as a mom, it really hurts seeing my baby in pain and knowing there’s nothing I can do about it,” she said.
Collins says in addition to feeling frustrated by the limited options on the shelf, whatever formula is left is often very expensive.
“The one we used to get, the Nestle Good Start Soothe, had a good price point, it was really great. But now, because we’ve had to just kind of buy whatever’s on the shelf, it’s around $40 to $ 50 for a little tiny little tub that maybe lasts a week or so,” Collins said.
Collins, who is just one of several parents who reached out to Global News about issues finding infant formula, said she and her husband are “counting down the days” for Jasper’s first birthday, when will be able to drink cow’s milk which is cheaper and more widely available.
The formula shortage isn’t just in Ontario, there are reports across the country, from Calgary to Montreal, of parents struggling to feed their babies, specifically those families who rely on hypoallergenic products.
Why the persistent formula shortage?
Sylvain Charlebois, director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, said Canada’s dependency on infant formula from the United States is largely to blame for the ongoing shortage.
More specifically, the problem largely rests on Canada’s reliance on the largest formula production plant in North America — Abbott Nutrition.
The formula plant, located in Michigan, recalled a number of its products in February 2022 following reports of bacterial infections. Four babies suffered bacterial infections after consuming powdered infant formula from the facility. Two of the infants died.
In addition to the plant being hit with ongoing supply issues, it is currently under criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Canada does not manufacture baby formula at all, so we’re very, very dependent on what’s going on in (Michigan), unfortunately,” Charlebois said. “And we are expecting that plant to operate minimally for quite some time. So shortages aren’t necessarily surprising.”
In an online statement updated March 24, Health Canada said the factory “produced several popular products that accounted for a significant portion of the Canadian infant formula market,” and “although the facility reopened in July 2022, it has not yet returned to its normal production capacity.”
“This has increased the demand for infant formulas produced by other manufacturers,” the department stated.
Another problem leading to the shortage is “hoarding,” Charlebois said, noting that he does not blame his parents for doing this.
For example, Abbott Nutrition makes a formula brand called Similac that is geared toward babies who have allergies such as soy or dairy.
“Because of that, a lot of parents are struggling to find the specific type of formula they need,” Charlebois said.
“If they do find a product, chances are they will hoard and it’s hard to blame them because of the supply chain uncertainties that they’re facing as they’re trying to take care of their infants.”
What is Canada doing about the formula shortage?
On its website, Health Canada said it is aware that parents continue to report difficulties finding some formula products and has been working with manufacturers to increase the types and amounts of products available.
Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said on March 22 he “personally spoke with Reckitt, Perrigo, and Abbott” — the three major manufacturers of infant formula — to see “how we can make sure families across Canada get the formula they need,” Health Canada said.
The federal department said it has also published an interim policy, which has been extended until Dec. 31, 2023, to help import equivalent infant formulas from other countries that have high quality and manufacturing standards similar to Canada.
Although Canada does not have domestic infant formula manufacturing plants, there is one in Kingston, Ont., called the Canada Royal Milk Plant owned by Feihe International. The plant is owned by China and according to its website, only ships overseas.
The plant previously told Global News that it is looking to sell its product in Canada and has made preliminary submissions to Health Canada as part of the regulatory approval.
As Health Canada and manufacturers continue to try and solve the formula shortages, parents like Collins are looking elsewhere for help.
“I am also on a Facebook support group that has been helping. People will post photos of store shelves and what their stock and inventory is for formula,” she said.
Collins said she’s also getting sent seven cans of the formula from friends from the United States, for which she is very thankful.
“But the fact that I even had to reach out to do that … we live in one of the top countries in the world. Like, why do I even have to?”