Many parents are looking for infant formula because of the combination of short- and long-term problems that have plagued most of the major US brands.
Millions of children in the United States rely on formula, which is the only source of recommended nutrition for children who are not exclusively breastfed.
Here’s a look at what’s causing the problem, as well as the situation in the Canadian market.
what are the reasons?
Constant supply disruptions combined with a recent safety recall have left many drugstores and supermarket shelves bare.
The problems began last year as the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in employment, transportation and raw materials – economy-wide issues that did not spare the formula industry. The stock has been further curtailed by parents stockpiling during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Then in February, Abbott Nutrition recalled several major brands of milk powder and closed its plant in Sturgis, Michigan, when federal officials began investigating four children who contracted bacterial infections after ingesting formula from the facility.
Abbott is one of the few companies that produces the vast majority of American formula supply, so its recall has wiped out a large slice of the market.
What is in infant formula?
Most formulas contain cow’s milk protein modified to be easier to digest and fortified with additional nutrients needed for growth and development. The Food and Drug Administration sets specific dietary requirements, including minimum amounts of protein, fat, calcium, and a number of vitamins. Formula makers achieve these levels by adding different types of sugars, oils, and minerals.
Formulas are designed to mimic breast milk, although studies have repeatedly shown better health outcomes for breastfed babies.
Why formula is essential for so many families
Health professionals recommend only breastfeeding babies until they are six months old. But federal numbers show that only one in four rely solely on breast milk at that age.
Mothers face a number of long-term breastfeeding challenges, including returning to work and finding the time and equipment to express breast milk. About 60 percent of moms stop breastfeeding earlier than they planned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How are US retailers handling the situation
Many national chains have limited the number of containers customers can buy in stores and online. For CVS and Walgreens, the limit is three per customer. The goal is to limit purchases to four per person when purchasing online.
Amazon said Thursday that it is working to keep products available on its website and to monitor third-party sellers for price gouging.
“If we set a price that violates our policy, we remove the offer and take appropriate action with the seller,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.
Is the situation the same in Canada?
For the most part, no. Retailers here told CBC News they haven’t been affected as much by the shortage, although a Canadian Retail Council spokesperson said she’s heard from a retailer who has struggled to keep a steady supply of formula available since 2021.
For Loblaw, this recall affected its ability to store certain types of formula, but the company said it has found alternatives.
To the extent that it does, it often appears to be a challenge for parents of babies who need special formulas due to allergies, digestive issues, and other medical conditions.
“In the past few months, we’ve noticed a severe shortage of some baby formulas,” said David Bannon, one of the owners of Pharmaprix in Montreal, noting that the biggest concern is with its hypoallergenic formula.
While supply chains can be fragile, Faiza Sahinizan, associate professor of business at Simon Fraser University, cautions that panic buying is not the answer, as it only exacerbates the problem.
What policy makers do
Typically 98 percent of infant formula consumed in the United States is made domestically, according to federal officials.
The FDA is working with Abbott to fix the violations that caused the closure of its Michigan plant, which produces Similac, EleCare, and many other leading powder formulas. The company says its products have not been directly linked to bacterial infections in children, noting that genetic samples collected from its factory do not match those from many of the infants who contracted the disease.
This will be a problem and will not go away for at least several monthsDr. Stephen Abrams, Pediatrician, University of Texas
On Thursday, US President Joe Biden discussed with executives from Gerber and Reckitt how they could increase production and how his administration could help, the White House said. He also spoke with leaders from Walmart and Target about how to restock shelves and address regional disparities in formula access.
The administration plans to monitor potential price gouging and work with trading partners in Mexico, Chile, Ireland and the Netherlands on imports.
However, experts warn that many industry-wide problems will continue to constrain supplies.
“This is going to be a problem and it won’t go away for at least several months,” said Dr. Stephen Abrams, a pediatrician at the University of Texas.
Advice given to parents
Most regular baby formulas contain the same basic ingredients and nutrients, so parents should not hesitate to buy a different brand if they are having a hard time finding their usual one.
The Associated Press spoke to Americans who engage with trusted friends and mums in Facebook groups to get tips on where supplies are available, or to share extra loads. But health officials caution against buying formula through social media or from outside traditional retailers because it could be fake.
as it happens6:46This mother does not know how to breastfeed her child with the continued shortage of formula milk
Many do-it-yourself formula recipes on the Internet are not recommended because they can contain cow’s milk and granulated sugar, which can be difficult for young children to digest, and generally lack the specific vitamins and proteins found in FDA-approved formulas. Parents should also never dilute infant formula.