'I hit panic mode': Baby formula shortage worrying new parents

Empty shelves, a lack of options, and crying children; the ongoing baby formula shortage in the United States has made its way to Ottawa, and new parents say they’re desperate for answers.

“I hit panic mode as soon as I saw the shelves. Not only was there not the formula I needed, there was no formula at all. No brands, no different age categories, it was literally empty,” Melissa Lamb said.

Lamb says she stopped at four different stores before finding baby formula for her two-month old daughter, Lola.

“When you find some, you’re like, ‘I need to buy all of it that they have on the shelves.’ I didn’t because I want to save some for other moms who maybe aren’t as fortunate as me, who can obviously breastfeed,” Lamb said.

According to an audit from Field Agent Canada, baby formula is 21 per cent out of stock on Canadian shelves and slightly higher in Ottawa at 26 per cent. The shortages are a far cry from the estimated 40 per cent in the United States, but parents say they’re still concerned.

“I’m starting to get anxious again that we’re not going to be able to find it,” Janelle Côté said.

Côté’s six-month old daughter, Evie, suffers from acid reflux, and relies on Similac Sensitive formula; one of the many Similac products that were part of a major recall in the United States.

The recall ultimately led to a shutdown of baby formula maker Abbott’s Sturgis, Michigan facility; a major factor in the increasing supply issues.

“Within a month of taking this formula, we noticed it was gone. There was nothing. The shelves were constantly bare and then we found out there was a recall and that the recall was affecting other formulas because parents were having to buy our brand,” Côté said.

U.S. officials on Monday reached an agreement to allow Abbott to restart its largest domestic factory, though it will be two months or more before any new products ship from the site and retail experts in Canada say it could several weeks after shipping before shelves in Ottawa return to normal.

“I think you’re going to see something that’s four to six weeks from when that product starts to flow to when we start seeing a recovery at store level and that’s really assuming that consumers don’t continue to panic buy,” Jeff Doucette, General Manager of Field Agent Canada said.

The Ottawa Food Bank says the supply shortage has been affecting them for months, with some formula nearly impossible to purchase.

“In particular formula stage one has been almost impossible for us to find. Since January we’ve seen a 75 per cent decrease in the amount of formula we’ve been able to put out into the community,” Rachael Wilson, Executive Director of the Ottawa Food Bank said.

Wilson says 80 per cent of the formula the food bank receives is now donated items.

“We’ve never experienced anything like this. Having to order and pray that it shows up, it’s really challenging and stressful,” she added.

The supply chain delays mean Ottawa families will likely be forced to continue their hunt for formula for the next several weeks.

“I’m going to be at the mercy again of being on my phone, checking all these stocks at Walmart,” Côté said.