Parents in the US are facing a shortage of infant formula — and some Canadians are experiencing the same, especially when it comes to hypoallergenic formula.
Nearly 40 percent of normally available infant formula is out of stock in more than 11,000 stores in the United States, according to online retail analyst Datasembly, a rise of 2 to 8 percent during the first half of 2021.
This comes after the US Food and Drug Administration issued a summons in February for Abbott Nutrition’s powdered products produced at their Sturgis, Michigan facility. The agency said the recall was due to the risk of contracting a bacterial infection such as salmonella.
In Canada, retailers say they have not been affected as much by the shortage, although a Canadian Retail Council spokesperson said she heard from a retailer who has struggled to keep a steady supply of formula available since 2021.
“It has been much worse since the Abbott recall in February,” Michelle Waselichen said in an email.
For Loblaw, this recall affected its ability to store certain types of formula, but the company said it has found alternatives.
“While this has left gaps in our shelves, we have a good supply of the formula from other vendors,” a statement from the Lublow Companies said.
What parents depend on
The products recalled from Abbott are hypoallergenic formulas – a product parents like Lindsay Ward have relied on.
Ward’s seven-month-old son has an intolerance to cow’s milk protein. She said it took three months to find a formula that Lukas could drink without an allergic reaction: Abbott’s Similac Alimentum formula.
“This is the formula that worked,” the Montreal mom said.
Now, she is struggling to find it. She said she got some recently after posting about it in an online community group.
“You feel guilty, because you don’t want to feel like you’re getting supplies from anyone else,” she said.
Ward said she resorted to driving to the United States, where she found some stock — despite the shortages there.
A pharmacist in her city echoed her concerns, saying his drugstore was facing shortages in Abbott products.
“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.
The pharmacist said he’s been in touch with Abbott, and he said the company told him their products should be fully available by August.
“We are doing everything we can to address the lack of infant formula supply,” a statement from Abbott said. “We are prioritizing the production of infant formula products to help replenish supplies in the market.”
The company said it is also stockpiling the formula daily from its FDA-registered facility in Ireland to try to meet demand.
For anxious parents, Bannon suggests speaking with a health care professional who may be able to find alternatives.
Ward said she’s been in touch with her son’s doctor and pharmacist, but their recommendations were for combinations that haven’t worked for her son in the past.
“We have exhausted all our options,” she said.
The US demand for the formula is different from Canada
Although parents have reported challenges finding some formula products in Canada, the shortage appears to be more severe in the United States.
“I think we see a slightly different picture, partly because the market is different and also because our use of these products is different,” said Michael Bensa Branco, co-founder of SafelyFed Canada.
Pensa Branco attributes the difference to the high prevalence of breastfeeding in Canada as well as the national program in the United States that buys a lot of formula from some brands.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children provides federal grants to fund a range of products and services for 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 is a very simple solution to the problem they are facing, which is to allow supermarkets to accept coupons of any formula,” said Pensa Branco. “Unfortunately, there are contractual reasons why this has not happened.”
Do not panic
The shortage in the United States has been exacerbated by what is known as panic buying.
Shortages accelerate when panic sets in, says Faiza Sahinyazan, assistant professor of business administration at Simon Fraser University.
Sahinizan says the withdrawal of Abbott’s products has shifted demand to other products in the United States, where frightened parents panic buying more of the products available.
“Fear of imperfection is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said, adding that the same level of fear did not appear to have been shown among Canadian parents.
She emphasized that even in the United States, 60 percent of the products are still in stock.
“Our supply chains, while very fragile, have learned retailers and manufacturers how to recover, how to source from different sources, and how to ensure that their customers are not disappointed,” Sahinizan said.
Pensa Branco says parents shouldn’t feel particularly attached to a particular brand of infant formula.
“There is no reason why you should not change from one type to another,” Bensa Branco said. “You just have to buy whatever works for your family and what’s available in your community at any time.”
Another solution, she said, is to supplement the infant’s diet with more breastmilk or start moving the infant toward solid food as soon as possible.
“I want to stop people from doing things like buying a whole batch of formula and storing them aside,” she said.