Sarah Schmidt
Postmedia News
OTTAWA — The rules of the game for toy importers and other companies are about to change dramatically with a new consumer product safety regime coming to Canada, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said Tuesday.
The Conservative government’s consumer product safety bill passed the Senate late Monday, despite opposition from the Liberals in the upper chamber. The legislation is expected to receive royal assent within days, and come into effect later in 2011.
“Ultimately, our goal is simple: We want consumer products to be as safe as humanly possible. It’s what Canadians want, it’s what they deserve, and now we have taken a giant step toward making that a reality,” Aglukkaq told reporters, who admitted the current system is failing families.
“We did not have the tools to protect Canadian families.”
When the new law takes effect, the health minister will be able to yank dangerous products off store shelves with new recall powers.
Under the old law, there was no general prohibition against importing or selling a dangerous product. Health Canada could only ask companies to recall unsafe products from the marketplace, but it was ultimately the company’s call to remove products.
Meanwhile, industry was also not required to report serious incidents when they became aware of them.
Those incidents will now have to be reported to Health Canada within two days, and the department can share the details with regulators in other countries — and disclose information to the public in cases of a serious and imminent risk.
The new law also empowers Health Canada to require companies to produce test results showing a product is safe and complies with Canadian regulations.
The government has been trying since 2008 to modernize the 41-year-old Canada’s Hazardous Products Act, drafted long before imported goods blanketed toy stores and other retail outlets.
The most recent attempt in 2009 failed after Liberal senators, who enjoyed a plurality in the upper house at the time, amended the bill after it passed the House of Commons unanimously. The legislation then died when the government moved to prorogue Parliament.
Aglukkaq said Tuesday one of her department’s top priorities will be to determine how best to use the government’s new powers to make sure children’s jewelry packed with cadmium is out of circulation.
Health Canada has known since 2008 of the presence of dangerous levels of cadmium in specific pieces of kids’ jewelry, according to internal test results released to Postmedia News.
Cadmium, considered more toxic than lead, is increasingly being used as substitute for lead in overseas operations. But unlike lead, which is banned in children’s jewelry in Canada at levels exceeding 0.06 per cent of the total weight, there are no regulations limiting the use of cadmium in kids’ jewelry. Without a general prohibition against importing or selling consumer products that pose an unreasonable danger to human or safety, Health Canada couldn’t compel some companies to take action.
Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence Canada, teamed up Tuesday with the Canadian Consumer Specialty Products Association to laud the passage of the new law. He said it’s “great news” that Canada is catching up to the United States and Europe on consumer protection.
“Whenever I tell people that at the moment the government lacks the legal authority to take products off store shelves when it becomes clear that these products are hurting or even killing Canadians, people are appalled. It’s an unbelievable state of affairs,” Smith said in an interview.
“These new responsibilities placed on companies and these new powers for the government are critical to ensuring that Canadians get the protection they need,” said Smith, who has been lobbying to modernize Canada’s consumer product safety law for a number of years.
Caroline Zayid, a product-safety specialist at the law firm McCarthy Tetrault, said mandatory recall powers represent the single largest reform facing industry.
“The biggest change really is there will be a power of mandatory recall, which we’ve never had. That’s a hammer that the minister has.”
But for manufacturers, retailers and importers that try to comply with the law — and launch voluntary recalls when necessary — complying with new requirements will require big adjustments at the operational level, said Zayid.
“I think that thing from a doing-business point-of-view is the requirement to report incidents and deal with those. I say that because the timelines put in place in the act are very short.”
After informing Health Canada within two days of an incident that resulted or could reasonably have resulted in a serious adverse effect or death, companies will be required to file a more detailed report within 10 days, according to the new law.
“They’ve got to be very proactive in understanding the legislation and the obligations it creates in trying to get ahead of them and have a plan for employees who are likely to be the first recipients of information,” said Zayid.
There will also be a learning curve for companies to see how Health Canada uses its new powers, such as requesting tests.
“For companies not likely subject to mandatory recalls, we’ll be watching closely to see how they use those powers and the grounds they are looking for to order big, expensive tests,” said Zayid.
In the meantime, there is some apprehension about Health Canada sharing confidential business information with safety regulators in other countries or the public in cases of a serious or imminent risk, added Zayid.
“They can do that without consent and would only be allowed to disclose it to the public where there is a serious and imminent danger to human health and safety, so they’ve tried to make that distinction, but it’s obviously a big concern because we don’t know how broadly the government will take that in terms of how much information they would disclose supposedly under the rubric of health and safety.”
Whatever concerns some companies may have, Smith said the new law simply raises Canadian standards to other countries, including the U.S.
“These are the kind of legal requirements that multinationals already operate with in other jurisdictions. Anybody who is complaining about Canada raising its consumer product safety standards to where the U.S. is already at is frankly the worst kind of dinosaur,” said Smith.