Health Canada said Tuesday it is working "to address potential sunflower oil shortages" that could further strain baby formula supplies and will keep its relaxed rules on formula imports until at least the end of the year.
In yet another twist for the ongoing formula saga, the federal agency is now monitoring concerns around the availability of sunflower oil — a key ingredient that has seen prices soar and supplies stretched amid the war in Ukraine, a significant global producer.
Health Canada is looking to speed up the evaluations needed in the event a manufacturer substitutes the ingredient in infant formula, noting that a switch "is considered a major change."
"Health Canada is working closely with manufacturers to accelerate the pre-market assessment of infant formula formulation changes that are required to address potential sunflower oil shortages with a goal of ensuring that the infant formula is safe, and nutritionally adequate, to support infant growth," the agency said in an emailed statement.
Ukraine and Russia together export half of the world's sunflower oil, but the ongoing war has seen Russian invaders accused of blocking Ukrainian ports and preventing food staples from leaving.
In an effort to mitigate the impact of a shortage of hypoallergenic formula manufactured in the U.S., Health Canada also said Tuesday it will extend an interim policy to import more baby formula from Europe and the United States to bolster domestic supplies.
The plan to bring 20 infant formulas approved for use in foreign markets now expires Dec. 30, instead of the previous date of June 30.
Last week, the federal agency acknowledged a shortage of infant formulas designed for babies with food allergies and certain medical conditions.
A massive product recall in February led to the shutdown of Abbott Nutrition's Michigan plant, exacerbating pandemic-era supply chain woes and depleting stock in the United States.
U.S. regulators are expected to soon allow Abbott Nutrition to reopen the plant. But the Retail Council of Canada's spokeswoman says even once that happens, "it will still take some time before these products arrive on store shelves."
While not as severe in Canada, Michelle Wasylyshen says the national council's members have also experienced shortages of regular and specialized formula. In response, some retailers have restricted online orders and in-person purchases to meet demand, she added.
For its part, Health Canada says it's working with manufacturers to mitigate further strain on supplies.
It introduced an interim policy to extend imports March 10, listing several formulas that, by May 9, grew to a total of 20.
In doing so, the agency recommended that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency temporarily lift food labelling and "composition requirements" for products from the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany that are otherwise comparable to Canadian standards.
Meanwhile, the Retail Council of Canada says the war in Ukraine "is having a massive impact on cost of all oils."
"But sunflower oil is a particular ingredient in baby formula," Wasylyshen said.
"Given that we know that the war in Ukraine is likely not going to end for some time, and that the impact of sunflower flower oil will be significant on these products, Health Canada has been working with manufacturers to see if there's ways to alter that ingredient within their formulas in advance of this pending shortage so that they can get ahead of it."
Wasylyshen added that "on balance," retailers report that the majority of their regular formula section are stocked "and that any shortages are temporary in nature."
"The primary concern continues to be with specialized formulas, including hypoallergenic products. These products are badly needed by vulnerable families and we strongly encourage consumers to avoid panic buying to ensure there is enough for those who need it."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2022.
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press