The federal government is introducing changes to food regulatory processes in an effort to reduce red tape and delays in getting food products to the market.
The changes were announced as part of a bill introduced last week to legislate key elements of the 2012 budget.
“The current tools we use to regulate some food products are rigid and outdated,” Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq said in a statement.
“Our new approach will allow more timely approvals of safe, innovative products while still protecting the health and safety of Canadians.”
According to Health Canada, the proposed changes will still maintain the same pre-market assessments to ensure food product safety, but will streamline regulatory processes.
For example, Health Canada determined that CITREM, a product used in infant formula to ensure consistent and full delivery of nutrients to newborns, was safe for use in June 2008. However, it took 41 months to receive all the necessary approvals and implement the required regulatory changes to allow the industry to use the product.
New Tools Cut Red Tape
With the new changes, Health Canada says the process could take as little as six months once a product has been deemed safe.
“These new tools would only be used after the scientific assessment and consultation process is complete. The extensive safety assessments conducted by Health Canada scientists won’t change,” Stephane Shank, a spokesperson with Health Canada, said in an email.
“These amendments will also provide tools so that safe new products with potential health benefits for Canadians, such as antimicrobials aimed to inhibit the growth of pathogens, can get to market more rapidly.”
The changes also allow faster update of maximum limits for chemical contaminations if new sciences emerge justifying these changes, and once stakeholders have been consulted, Shank said.
One of the new tools introduced to speed up the processes is “Incorporation by Reference,” under which lists detailing rules and limits for specific substances in various foods will no longer be managed within the regulations.
“By managing these lists outside of the regulations, through a publicly available document, it becomes much simpler and less time-consuming to add to, or change, these lists. This will reduce red tape and allow the department to focus resources where they will have the greatest impact on the health of Canadians,” Shank said.
The other tool is “Market Authorization,” which grants the Minister of Health more ability to act on certain safety decisions.
“The Market Authorization would also allow the minister to apply specific conditions on the approval of a product or substance, allowing more flexibility to address any particular risks,” Shank explained.
Ken Whitehurst, executive director of Consumers Council of Canada, points out that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture) is also introducing many changes, and in times of change, there are risks of oversight or omission.
“There’s a great opportunity in a time of change to make improvements, but in time of change a practical fact is there are also some risks as you’re doing things in new ways,” he said.
He notes, however, that the changes are being introduced in a systematic way.
“They’re aware of those risks and … their management seems to be trying to be careful about it. I don’t think they have any goal to weaken food safety,” Whitehurst said.