European formula not yet on store shelves despite Health Canada’s temporary allocation

Measures to prevent Canada’s infant formula supply from degenerating into widespread shortages like the one seen in
the United States is unlikely to offer immediate relief, and even then it could be short-lived, experts say.

On May 9, Health Canada recommended that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency temporarily suspend bilingual labeling and nutritional composition requirements to allow imports of infant formula from Europe to reduce Canada’s dependence on US suppliers.

The move would allow nine previously unavailable products from the UK, Ireland and Germany to reach the Canadian market, along with 11 other products from the United States.

The products are from “countries that have similar regulatory standards to Canada and are safe to use,” a Health Canada spokesperson said via email.

Olivia Godden feeds her infant son, Jaiden, formula on May 13, 2022, at their home in San Antonio. Godden had contacted family, friends and other mothers through social media to locate the formula as it is in short supply. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Most are for infants who require specialized feeding due to cow’s milk allergy or who have certain metabolic conditions that do not necessarily affect the majority of formula-fed babies in Canada. In a statement Thursday, the regulator said caregivers of babies with food allergies should speak to a medical professional about alternatives.

Long road to Canadian shelves: retail advice

The Retail Council of Canada says none of the formulas on the temporary import list are yet available in stores and the order expires on June 30.

Meanwhile, the council’s national spokeswoman says she is aware of “sporadic shortages of regular formulas” in addition to a reduced supply of specialty formulas due to a recall involving certain products made by Abbott Nutrition.

“I think Health Canada is working to get them here, quickly and safely,” Michelle Wasylyshen says of the additional imports, adding that her members are doing what they can to meet consumer demand.

“Many retailers have purchase limits in place … so that there is enough product for everyone.”

Federal safety inspectors say infant formula maker Abbott failed to maintain sanitary conditions at the Michigan manufacturing plant recently linked to a cluster of childhood illnesses. The US Food and Drug Administration began investigating the factory after Abbott recalled several leading infant formulas. (Brandon Watson/Sturgis Journal/Associated Press)

The road to the shelves of Canadian retailers is also long and complicated, even after obtaining approval from Health Canada, she adds.

Retailers and supplier partners should define pricing, storage and delivery plans, application of federal and provincial tax regimes, and recall protocols.

“You can’t just put a product on the shelf – it needs a SKU, a retailer has to say, ‘I’m going to sell it. It’s not as simple as you or I might think,” she said.

Then there’s the Abbott factory in Sturgis, Michigan, which has been closed since February after FDA inspectors began investigating four bacterial infections in infants who had consumed formula from the factory.

Across the United States, parents are scrambling to find formula as supply disruptions and a massive safety recall have swept many big-name brands from store shelves. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Abbott said there was no direct evidence linking its products to disease.

The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Thursday the plant could be operational as soon as next week, and President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to speed up domestic manufacturing.

But again, Wasylyshen said Canadian consumers will likely have to wait at least two months for the actual product to hit our shelves: “It still takes a long time to get this facility up and running to produce the product.”

The infant formula crisis has drawn attention to a highly concentrated industry and a debate over import restrictions.

Permanently relaxing requirements to allow non-U.S. infant formula could help prevent and mitigate future shortages. But that probably won’t happen, says Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy in the faculties of management and agriculture at Dalhousie University.

He says that due to trade agreements and a complicated approval process, the stopgap measure is unlikely to open the door for more brands flooding the market.

“If the United States hadn’t had a shortage, I don’t think Health Canada could have done what they did,” says

“We have a factory in Kingston that can’t ship formula to the United States. That’s how protective they are of this product.”

Permanently relaxing requirements to allow non-U.S. infant formula could help prevent and mitigate future shortages. But that probably won’t happen, says Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University. (Sale Lyzaville/SRC)

The Kingston, Ontario plant is the largest infant formula plant in the country and uses cow and goat milk from Canada to produce infant formula exclusively for China.

Charlebois says the United States wants to keep control of the Canadian market and suspects the pressures will be purely economic and not necessarily related to food security or food safety.

“The players in the United States who control the market are very powerful. Starting with Abbott,” says Charlebois.

Parents turn to online sellers

Some households already obtain European infant formula through unofficial channels.

Lesley Frank, Canada Research Chair in Food, Health and Social Justice at Acadia University and professor of sociology, collected and analyzed 2,000 Kijiji ads over 11 months and found that many parents turned to the website to sell, search, barter, offer or beg. for infant formula, including European brands.

“You don’t see a lot of food products on Kijiji, but you do see all kinds of infant formula,” Frank says. “It’s a commodity in the second-hand exchange economy in a way that other foods aren’t.”

Dr. Catherine Pound, a pediatrician at CHEO in Ottawa and former chair of the Canadian Pediatric Society’s nutrition committee, says there could be risks in ordering formula directly from suppliers overseas.

A European brand introduced through Health Canada’s regulations and transport channels is a safer alternative, she says, suspecting improper handling and storage could compromise nutritional integrity.

Katherine Gibson-Haynes, right, helps distribute formula milk during an infant formula drive May 14 in Houston. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

“I would advise against ordering directly from a European company and having it shipped to us because that’s where the transport issues arise. That’s where we don’t know how things are handled,” says Pound.

Even before the shortage in the United States, the high cost of infant formula made it inaccessible to many Canadian parents. Costs can range from $2 to $5 per 100 grams, which can translate to around $80 to $200 per month, depending on the brand and the age of the child.

It’s one of the most stolen items in the country, says Frank. And unlike other developed countries, there is no government program in Canada that provides formula milk to low-income mothers.

“This is a long-standing problem that’s only getting worse because our incomes aren’t keeping pace with inflation,” Frank says.

She surveyed 1,400 families in Nova Scotia to understand how supply chain disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic have affected their access to specialty formulas.

A third of respondents said they struggled to find infant formula in stores near them and 70% said they had to go to places they wouldn’t normally shop to find it .

A third of respondents suffered from food insecurity. “These are the people who have the most impact when there is a supply problem,” says Frank.

At the pharmacy near her work in Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia, she found empty shelves with a note that read, “Due to high demand, purchase quantities of infant formula will be limited to two per customer. We are working diligently with our suppliers to restock our shelves for you.”

In-stock infant formula was the most expensive, costing around $800 a month, she noted. “People with resources can get what they need,” Frank says.

“People without resources will be the ones who will suffer the most.”

“Even if we solve the supply problem, we’re not going to solve this formula access problem and it’s a really misunderstood social problem in this country.”