Canadians want more product labeling, not reductions in food and drug regulations

Elizabeth May

In all the slashing and burning of existing environmental laws, the dramatic reduction of oversight of the Canadian domestic spy agency, the loss of sovereignty in allowing US law enforcement agencies into Canada to make arrests, all found in the budget omnibus bill last spring, less noticed were significant changes in consumer safety.

I  submitted amendments to redress the changes, as did Liberal and NDP MPs, but, there was no willingness on the part of the Harper Conservatives to reconsider food safety and controls on prescription drugs.  No surprise.  As we all know, the 425 page bill passed into law at break-neck speed without a single amendment at committee or report stage.

The buzz-words stayed the same as Bill C-38 waded into reducing consumer access to information, and potentially reducing the safety of our foods and drugs.

The changes are to “streamline” the approval of new food additives, ingredients and food modifications.  The industry leaders in food retailing heralded the changes.  According to the industry association, Food and Consumer Products of Canada, Canada has been lagging behind other countries due to our onerous regulations.  What dire negative impact is there as a result of undue regulation of food safety?  Apparently, Canadians have been suffering as regulations have been “seriously limiting consumer choice in the marketplace.” I wonder if these guys have been in the “marketplace” lately.  The array of consumer choice for everything from toothpaste to olive oil is dizzying.  But apparently, Canadians are deprived of “choice.”

So thanks to C-38, a range of decisions that used to run the normal course of regulation-making will no longer receive the public and Parliamentary oversight implicit in promulgating regulations.  Decisions are reduced to non-regulatory lists and the minister of health can approve new food products, as long as a previous assessment of the additive was made for other products. “Interim marketing authorizations” can be granted without moving through regulation.  And unlike the previous law, the interim authorization could remain in place indefinitely.

Meanwhile, regulations of food safety with regard to contamination with hazardous substances have been relaxed. The requirement that the Minister had to conclude that “the food would not be harmful to the health of the purchaser or consumer” has been removed.  This will allow the minister to allow the sale of products with levels of pesticides, veterinary drugs or food additives without determining first that the food would not be harmful.  There was no explanation for removing this protection.

In the area of prescription drugs, regulations were also removed.  The minister will no longer have to post proposed new prescription drugs to the Canada Gazette.  The minister will establish a “list that sets out prescription drugs, classes of prescription drugs or both.” And the list is “not a regulation within the meaning of the Statutory Instruments Act.”  More great streamlining for Big Pharma.

What Canadian consumers really want is more product information.  Canadians want labels to allow us to differentiate between products containing genetically modified organisms and those without.  We want the label information to tell us more clearly what parts of prepared food products are locally grown, or at least grown in Canada.

These areas require attention.  Meanwhile, the Harper Conservatives are relaxing food and drug safety regulation in the interest of rushing new food and pharmaceutical products to, what they apparently conceive, as a barren and lonely marketplace, where Canadians yearn for the next new clean-minty-whitening-with green swirls-stand up by itself tube of toothpaste.

Elizabeth May is the Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands and Leader of the Green Party of Canada.
Originally printed in the Hill Times.