Chantal Braganza is deputy editor, food at Chatelaine magazine.
My mother often tells stories about two remarkable gifts her father gave her as a young woman building a life in 1980s Toronto. One was a case of Dom Pérignon, which he’d saved up for months to buy for her wedding. The other was a pallet of infant formula, accumulated shortly after I was born over the course of visits to western Mexico, where my mother grew up. At the time, formula was significantly less expensive there than in Canada. Parental leave then was also 17 weeks, compared with our current average of 52, and 62 per cent of children were breastfed in their first few weeks of life compared to today’s 90 per cent – two statistics that are tightly linked.
Like many new parents, however, no amount of parental leave would have resulted in her being able to nurse my brother and me. Despite weeks of painfully trying, she was physically unable to do it, and for her sanity and well-being, she chose to formula-feed us through our first year of life instead. It’s why she remains grateful for her father’s gift to this day.
I’ve thought of this family anecdote often while following the infant-formula shortage in the United States, a horrifying crisis that has left parents in parts of the country scrambling through empty-shelved stores for weeks, driving for hours to find the specialized formula their baby needs to thrive, and in some desperate cases turning to inadequately nutritious homemade versions.
While a couple of recent factors set this shortage into motion – pandemic-related supply chain issues, a product recall and subsequent production shutdown at the country’s largest factory, which was responsible for producing as much as a quarter of the U.S.’s baby formula – a crisis like this was a long time coming. Canada isn’t immune to feeling the effects; the federal government has issued an advisory about the shortage.
So while a lot has changed in the 35 years since my mother’s experience, much about how infant formula is made, regulated and sold has not. The great majority of the global infant-formula supply is still produced by just four companies. Prices remain exorbitant for this non-medicinal product, one that many families rely on to keep their children alive; in Canada, the cost has risen nearly tenfold since the 1970s.
Our supply is almost entirely reliant on global imports, even though Canada has a 50-year-old supply-managed dairy system, which would make domestic production of infant formula possible. Indeed, a factory in Kingston has proven this by manufacturing massive amounts of infant formula and shipping almost all of it to China, the result of a 2017 agreement between Feihe International and the Ontario government. In the deal, the Chinese infant-formula manufacturer invested $225-million in building a 40-acre production facility, which makes cow- and goat-dairy-based formula with powdered milk purchased from Canada’s managed supply. In exchange, Feihe was able to address China’s growing demand for infant formula driven by the end of its one-child policy and lasting anxiety about the country’s melamine formula scandal almost 15 years on. The arrangement seems to have irritated the U.S. regime; in renegotiating its former NAFTA agreement with Canada, Washington imposed additional duties on its already shockingly high tariffs on global Canadian formula exports, a product Canada does not ship to the U.S. in significant amounts.
When NAFTA was renegotiated, eventually producing the new USMCA, the quarrel over infant formula was seen as a curious sticking point; now the agreement looks short-sighted. Canadians, meanwhile, seem to only now have become aware of the strange reality of our own domestic formula supply and production – one that could be heavily improved by making Health Canada’s temporary import allowances on European formula permanent, and by mandating higher domestic production quotas for Kingston’s Feihe plant, or any other similar arrangements looking to capitalize on our powdered milk prices that may follow.
Infant formula is already highly and unfairly stigmatized; for many families, it isn’t a feeding option, but the only choice, making it all the more crucial that we think about this product as more than some semi-agricultural pawn in trade disputes. Up until now, every move the Canadian industry has made around the production and supply of infant formula has been reactionary. It’s time to start thinking about – and acting on, producing, even exploiting – its supply ourselves. We’ve already proven it’s possible.
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