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Soaring cost of baby formula puts extra pressure on new parents

When it comes to feeding her newborn son, Ashleigh Ottley knows it takes a village.

Unable to produce enough breast milk after an emergency c-section, the 20-year-old from Chilliwack, B.C., says friends and family from across the country — as far away as Ontario — will send her the formula her six-month-old son, Colt, relies on to meet his nutritional needs. 

The Similac formula is the only one Colt can stomach, but it has become increasingly difficult to find at major retailers like Walmart, she tells CBC News.

“At what point do you stop calling it a shortage because it’s been so long?” she said. 

As Canadians struggle to keep up with the rising cost of groceries, Ottley and other new parents are feeling an added pinch, as supply shortages, sparked in part by disruptions from U.S. manufacturers, push the price of formula ever higher.

WATCH | A look back at 2022’s baby formula shortage in the U.S.: 

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.

Statistics Canada data shows that, between September 2022 and September 2023, the price of formula increased more than 20 per cent — from $31 a container to more than $38.

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“Infant formula has risen [in price] almost five times more than the average food product in a grocery store since March of 2022,” said Dalhousie University food policy researcher Sylvain Charlebois. “That is pretty significant.”

Ottley says that, with her son consuming between 24 and 30 ounces of formula every day, it’s costing her more than $280 every month.

She tells CBC she has had to trim other parts of her budget to afford Colt’s formula.

“It’s rough,” she said. “I’m spending $70 a week, when I could be putting that money in a gas tank.” 

In a statement, Walmart writes: “In the face of ongoing global, industry-wide supply challenges with baby formula, and other market pressures — including double-digit price increases from suppliers over the last two years — we continue to do our absolute best every day to make it easier for customers to find formula on a budget.

“Despite these challenges, we have about 90 per cent more inventory in stores compared to the same time last year.”

Formula still hard to find

The executive director of Chilliwack-based Meadow Rose Society, a non-profit that supports families with young children in financial crisis, says the group has also struggled to procure affordable formula in recent months. Jackie Kingma-Glattfelder says volunteers have been travelling around the city in hopes of finding supplies, which often can only be purchased in limited quantities. 

“Generally, [you can purchase] just two jars or two packages of formula,” she said. And on top of that, she added, “the stuff that’s reasonably priced is not on the shelves.”

A man in a collared shirt and vest speaks with a headset on
Sylvain Charlebois, a food policy researcher at Dalhousie University, says Canada’s slowing birth rate may discourage private investment into formula manufacturing in this country. (Dayne Patterson/CBC)

Kingma-Glattfelder says Meadow Rose Society has fielded 1,240 visits this year from 210 registered clients. In previous years, they’ve added two or three new clients every month; this year, she says, it’s been more like 16 every month.

In February 2022, the Abbott Nutrition formula manufacturing plant in Sturgis, Mich., shuttered for months and issued a product recall due to contamination issues, prompting a continent-wide shortage.

In the aftermath of the closure, Health Canada enacted an interim policy to make it easier to import baby formula from “countries that have similar manufacturing standards to Canada’s,” it said in a statement. That policy has been extended until the end of 2024.

Health authorities also warn parents not to water down formula — or try to make their own — as that can be dangerous.

A homegrown solution?

In its statement, Health Canada acknowledges that beefing up domestic production of baby formula “could help to alleviate the limited supply.” It said it is working with companies that are interested in manufacturing formula in Canada to help them understand the country’s regulatory regimes. 

Food researcher Charlebois says that Canadians are, on average, having fewer children, which may dissuade private investment into formula manufacturing. But he points to the Canada Royal Milk plant in Kingston, Ont., as a possible solution.

WATCH | Most of the formula used in Canada is imported from the U.S.: 

Parents struggling with the price of baby formula

New parents are dealing with the rising cost of baby formula, which has increased much faster than other foods. Some are calling for better support for young babies, especially since most formula production happens outside of Canada.

The plant, which was borne out of a $332 million investment from a Chinese company and support from all three levels of government, is managed by a team of executives from both China and Canada. (It has also faced controversy over safety concerns and questions about potential conflict of interest.)

The plant was developed with the idea that the vast majority of its output would be exported to China. Charlebois suggests negotiating with the Chinese partners to keep more of the formula in Canada.

“The Kingston-based plant is actually our best bet because it’s already built,” he said. “There’s some capacity there, so why not talk to the Chinese?” 

Canada Royal Milk employees held a vote last March to certify a union with the United Food and Commercial Workers, but the result has been tied up in arbitration for the last year.
The Canada Royal Milk plant in Kingston, Ont., was built with the understanding that most of the formula it manufactures would be exported to China. (Marc Robichaud/CBC News)

Parents, meanwhile, are reminded they can also turn to public health services for help.

“Public health nurses are available and can make referrals on an individual, case-by-case basis, to emergency supports like food banks or other community resources that may have formula stock available,” said Jody Street, a public health nurse with the Chilliwack Public Health Unit.


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