Baby formula: The causes and impacts of North American shortages

Many parents are hunting for infant formula because of a combination of short- and long-term problems that has hit most of the biggest U.S. brands.

Millions of babies in the U.S. rely on formula, which is the only source of nutrition recommended for infants who aren’t exclusively breastfed.

Here’s a look at what’s behind the problem, as well as the situation in the Canadian marketplace.

What are the causes?

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

The problems began last year as the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in labour, transportation and raw materials — economy-wide issues that didn’t spare the formula industry. Inventory was further squeezed by parents stockpiling during COVID-19 lockdowns.

WATCH \ White House keenly aware of issue, trying to arrange workarounds:

U.S. stores running out of baby formula amid recall, supply disruptions

Increased demand, supply chains disrupted by the pandemic and a recall on powdered baby formula issued by the U.S. 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 shut down its Sturgis, Mich., factory when federal officials began investigating four babies who suffered bacterial infections after consuming formula from the facility.

Abbott is one of only a handful of companies that produce the vast majority of the U.S. formula supply, so their recall wiped out a large segment of the market.

What is in baby formula?

Most formulas contain protein from cow’s milk that’s been altered to be easier to digest and enhanced with extra 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 makers achieve those levels by adding various sugars, oils and minerals.

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

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

Why formula 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 are relying solely on breast milk at that age.

Mothers face a number of challenges to long-term breastfeeding, including returning to work and finding the time and equipment needed to pump breast milk. About 60 per cent of mothers stop breastfeeding sooner than they had planned, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How U.S. retailers are handling the situation

Several national chains have limited the number of containers customers can purchase in stores and online. For CVS and Walgreens, the limit is three per customer. Target limits purchases to four per person when buying online.

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

Empty shelves show a shortage of baby formula and a notice about quantity limits at a CVS store in San Antonio, Texas on 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 have not been hit as hard by the shortages, though the national spokesperson for the Retail Council of Canada said she’s heard from one retailer that has struggled to keep a steady supply of formula available since 2021.

For Loblaw, that recall has affected its ability to stock certain kinds of formula, but the company said that it’s found alternatives.

WATCH | Gaps in supply, but shortages not as widespread in Canada:

Baby formula shortage in the U.S. affects Canadian parents

A baby formula shortage in the U.S. is starting to have an effect on Canadian stores and parents, especially those looking for speciality formulas.

To the extent that it’s happening, it appears mostly a challenge for parents of infants who require specialty formulas due to allergies, digestive problems and other medical conditions.

“In the last few months, we’ve noticed a drastic shortage of certain baby formulations,” said David Banon, co-owner of a Pharmaprix in Montreal, noting the biggest concern is around hypoallergenic formula.

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

What policy-makers are doing

Typically, 98 per cent of baby formula consumed in the U.S. is made domestically, according to federal officials.

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

This is going to be a problem and it’s not going away for at least a period of several months– Dr. Steven Abrams, University of Texas pediatrician

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

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

Still, experts caution that many of the industry-wide issues will continue to restrain supplies.

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

The advice being given to parents

Most regular baby formulas contain the same basic ingredients and nutrients, so parents shouldn’t hesitate to buy a different brand if they’re having trouble finding their regular one.

The Associated Press spoke to Americans who are engaging with trusted friends and mothers in Facebook groups to get tips on where supplies are available, or to share extra quantities. But health officials warn against buying formula via social media websites or outside of conventional retailers because they could be counterfeit.

As It Happens6:46This mother doesn’t know how she’ll feed her baby as the formula shortage rages on

California’s Darice Browning tells AIH guest host Helen Mann she’s down to two four cans of the speciality baby formula she needs for her 10-month-old daughter.

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

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