New legislation to keep unsafe products off shelves

By Sarah Schmidt, Canwest News Service

OTTAWA — Health Canada is banking on 45 more inspectors stationed across the country to help keep unsafe consumer products off store shelves as part of a new regime outlined in proposed product-safety legislation tabled on Thursday.

Leona Aglukkaq reintroduced the Consumer Product Safety Act to replace a "very old" 40-year-old law after a similar bill died when parliamentary business was suspended last month.

"Canadians want to know the products, whether it be the toys they buy for their children or food, are safe. This is a priority for me," she said in an interview.

The bill will prohibit the manufacture, importation or sale of consumer products that pose an unreasonable danger to human health or safety.

It will also require mandatory reporting by suppliers of serious incidents involving their products, including those where injury may have been averted.

And for the first time in Canada, the government will have the power to order mandatory recalls of consumer products — a key provision of the legislation designed to replace the Hazardous Products Act, enacted in 1969.

Currently, recalls in Canada are carried out on a voluntary basis if manufacturers and importers are willing to act.

The legislation proposes fines of up to $5 million for manufacturing or distributing unsafe consumer products, an increase from the current $1 million.

Health Canada is touting "three pillars for action": active prevention with enhanced guidance to industry and steeper fines, targeted oversight with mandatory reporting of adverse events, and rapid response through recall powers.

To help with enforcement, the department hopes to double the number of inspectors currently stationed across the country over the next five year — from 45 to 90.

Aglukkaq said additional inspectors will be just one tool to help Health Canada officials get unsafe products out of the marketplace.

"With a modern legislation like this, where there are requirements for mandatory reporting of incidents and the ability to recall, we’ll be able to do more, we’ll be able to respond quicker, we’ll be able to monitor products out there. There’s sampling going on. This we don’t have now."

The 2009 budget, tabled earlier this week, does not include a spending proposal to support the plan.

The 2008 budget touted $113 million over two years to help fund the modernization and strengthening of the regulation of food and consumer products. And the corresponding departmental estimates state that the number of full-time staffers at Health Canada dealing with consumer product safety will increase from 124 in the fiscal year ending in March to 134 by the fiscal year 2010/11.

Aaron Freeman, policy director of Environmental Defence, says "hiring more inspectors is important, but making sure they’re focused on potentially harmful products is the other side of that equation. So we need to develop a priority list so we have categories of products that are either particularly important because vulnerable populations use them — kids’ toys is an obvious example — or they’re products that we typically find harmful chemicals in — like shower curtains or imports that are painted from low-cost manufacturing jurisdictions like China."

And all these test results should be disclosed to consumers, said Freeman. "What’s being inspected, what chemicals are being tested for and what are the results. We want to make sure that information is public."

There’s no doubt more inspectors are needed, said Christina Bisanz, executive director of the Consumers Council of Canada. But an effective mechanism to deter companies from manufacturing or importing dangerous products is key — and she says the proposed legislation does this.

That’s why it’s "critical that this legislation be addressed in a timely way," said Bisanz.

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