Infant Formula: The Causes and Impacts of North American Shortages


Many parents seek out infant formula due to a combination of short-term and long-term issues that have plagued many of America’s top brands.

Millions of babies in the United States depend on formula, which is the only recommended source of nutrition for infants who are not exclusively breastfed.

Here is an overview of what is behind the problem, as well as the situation in the Canadian market.

What are the causes ?

Ongoing supply disruptions have combined with a recent safety recall to leave many drugstore and supermarket shelves empty.

The problems began last year when the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in labour, transport and raw materials – economy-wide problems that did not spare the formula industry. Inventory was further reduced by parents stocking up during COVID-19 closures.

WATCH The White House is acutely aware of the problem, trying to come up with workarounds:

U.S. stores run out of baby formula due to recall and supply disruptions

Rising demand, supply chains disrupted by the pandemic and a recall of powdered baby formula issued by the United States Food and Drug Administration in February have all contributed to a nationwide shortage.

Then, in February, Abbott Nutrition recalled several major brands of powdered formula and closed its plant in Sturgis, Michigan, when federal officials began investigating four babies who suffered bacterial infections after consuming milk powder. formula milk from the establishment.

Abbott is one of the few companies to produce the vast majority of the formula supply in the United States, so their recall wiped out much of the market.

What’s in formula milk?

Most formulas contain cow’s milk protein that has been modified to be easier to digest and fortified with additional nutrients needed for growth and development. The Food and Drug Administration sets specific nutritional requirements, including minimum amounts of protein, fat, calcium, and a number of vitamins. Formula manufacturers achieve these levels by adding various sugars, oils, and minerals.

The formulas are designed to mimic breast milk, although studies have repeatedly shown better health outcomes for breastfed babies.

Ashley Maddox of Imperial Beach, Calif., feeds her five-month-old son, Cole, with formula she purchased through a Facebook group of mothers in need. (Gregory Bull/Associated Press)

Why formula milk is essential for many families

Health professionals recommend exclusively breastfeeding babies until they are six months old. But federal figures show that only one in four relies solely on breast milk at this 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% of mothers stop breastfeeding sooner than they planned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How US retailers are handling the situation

Several 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. Target limits purchases to four per person when shopping online.

Amazon said Thursday it is working to keep products available on its website and monitoring third-party sellers for price gouging.

Empty shelves show a formula shortage and quantity limit notice at a CVS store in San Antonio, Texas, May 10. (Kaylee Greenlee Beal/Reuters)

“If we identify 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 tell CBC News they haven’t been hit as hard by the shortages, although the national spokeswoman for the Retail Council of Canada said she had heard of a retailer who had struggling to maintain a steady supply of infant formula available since 2021.

For Loblaw, the recall affected its ability to stock certain types of formulas, but the company said it has found alternatives.

WATCH | Supply gaps, but shortages less common in Canada:

Shortage of infant formula in the United States affects Canadian parents

A shortage of infant formula in the United States is beginning to have an effect on Canadian stores and parents, especially those looking for specialty formulas.

To the extent that this occurs, it seems especially a challenge for parents of infants who require specialized formulas due to allergies, digestive issues and other medical conditions.

“Over the past few months, we’ve noticed a drastic shortage of certain baby formulas,” said David Banon, co-owner of a Pharmaprix in Montreal, noting that the biggest concern is with hypoallergenic formulas.

While supply chains can be tenuous, Feyza Sahinyazan, assistant professor of commerce at Simon Fraser University, warns that panic buying is not the solution, as it can only exacerbate the problem.

What policy makers do

Typically, 98% of infant formula consumed in the United States is made domestically, according to federal officials.

The FDA is working with Abbott to correct the violations that triggered the closure of its Michigan plant, which produces Similac, EleCare and several other leading powder formulas. The company says its products have not been directly linked to bacterial infections in children, pointing out that genetic samples taken from its factory did not match those found in several infants who fell ill.

This is going to be a problem and it won’t go away for at least a period of several months.– Dr. Steven Abrams, University of Texas Pediatrician

US President Joe Biden spoke with executives from Gerber and Reckitt on Thursday about how they could increase production and how his administration could help, the White House said. He also spoke with Walmart and Target executives about how to restock shelves and address regional disparities in formula access.

The administration plans to monitor possible price increases and work with trading partners in Mexico, Chile, Ireland and the Netherlands on imports.

Still, experts warn that many industry-wide issues will continue to limit supplies.

“It’s going to be a problem and it’s not going to go away for at least several months,” said Dr. Steven Abrams, a pediatrician at the University of Texas.

Advice given to parents

Most regular infant formulas contain the same basic ingredients and nutrients. Parents should therefore not hesitate to buy another brand if they have trouble finding one.

The Associated Press spoke with Americans who engage with trusted friends and mothers in Facebook groups for advice on where supplies are available or to share extra quantities. But health officials warn against buying preparations through social media websites or outside of conventional retailers because they could be counterfeit.

As it happens6:46This mum doesn’t know how she’ll feed her baby as formula shortages rage

Darice Browning, from California, told IAI guest host Helen Mann that she only had two four boxes left of the specialty formula she needed for her 10-month-old daughter.

Many do-it-yourself formula recipes found on the Internet are not recommended because they may include cow’s milk and granulated sugar, which can be difficult for young babies to digest, and are generally lacking in the specific vitamins and proteins found in FDA-approved formulas. Parents should also never dilute infant formula.