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Natural Health Products or Foods?

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The Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) has provided us with another point of view in the issue of Bill C-420 discussed in the "What's happening with Codex?" article in the April 2005 edition of alive.

The Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) has provided us with another point of view in the issue of Bill C-420 discussed in the "What's happening with Codex?" article in the April 2005 edition of alive.

We encourage you to read this article by Valerie Bell, President of the CHFA, and to inform yourself of all the aspects surrounding this important issue.

In keeping with alive's editorial policy we strive to offer readers different perspectives so they can make well-informed decisions regarding natural health.

Seven Years Later, Bill C-420 Reopens the Debate

After one of the country's biggest grassroots lobby campaigns, new Natural Health Product Regulations were introduced in 2004.Their measures greatly improve consumer information on products and assurances of safety, quality, and efficacy. Now the federal Standing Committee on Health is considering Bill C-420, which would treat natural health products as foods. Will the federal government enact the right legislation now to protect and enhance the current Natural Health Products Regulations and create a separate category for natural health products as promised, or throw it all to chance by moving natural health products into the food category?

Canadians, especially those who manufacture, sell, and use natural health products, have never been shy in making their views known to politicians. In the latter part of the 1990s, Members of Parliament received more letters on natural health products than they had ever received on any issue. The fight for a new, more appropriate way to regulate natural health products was one of the largest grassroots political campaigns in Canada, and it brought results.

Following cross-Canada public hearings and testimony from over 180 consumer and industry groups, academics, and individuals, the Standing Committee on Health presented 53 recommendations promising a "new vision" for natural health products. Central to this vision was the acknowledgement that natural health products were neither foods nor drugs and that they should be regulated as a unique category under an independent authority within Health Canada.

The government of Canada accepted all 53 recommendations and went into action. A new Natural Health Products Directorate was set up, and new regulations for natural health products were introduced in January of 2004.

Yet this May, the Standing Committee on Health is once again reviewing the regulation of natural health products. Bill C-420 passed second reading on March 9, 2005 and was referred to the Committee for review. One of the Bill's proposals is to regulate natural health products as foods.

Why is this happening? Because a group of stakeholders has decided that they do not like the way the regulations are moving forward and are determined to derail the process. They have managed to convince a large number of people that the "sky is indeed falling" and that the only solution is to make natural health products foods. Further they have muddied the waters and confused many, many people by tying international regulations and standards into the Canadian scenario. However, the information they are providing is misleading, and more often than not outright fraudulent.

What is the true situation? Have Canadian consumers, health providers and natural health retailers and suppliers gotten what they wanted and what the Standing Committee recommended in 1998? Not quite, but we are significantly further ahead than we were seven years ago.

What we have now is a unique set of regulations that ensure manufacturers provide consumers with all the product information needed to make informed choices. Along with the ability to make health claims, products are now required to provide complete ingredient listings, dosing information, and warnings and contraindications information that will enable consumers to take charge and better manage the health care of their families and themselves. Another key benefit is the requirement for Good Manufacturing Practices. This will provide consumers with the assurance that "what's on the label is in the bottle."

None of these measures could have been achieved if natural health products were regulated as foods. Bill C-420's proposal to treat natural health products as foods would create both regulatory and market chaos. No one is certain what would happen to the current regulations if Bill C-420 was passed as written. What is certain is that trying to fit today's natural health products into food regulations would be like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Among many other issues, food regulations do not allow for a variety of health claims, do not encompass products that are topically applied, and do not have mandatory Good Manufacturing Practices.

More importantly, having natural health products regulated as foods would subject them to Codex something that nobody in Canada wants to see happen.

On the other hand, while we have separate Natural Health Products Regulations and a Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD) to oversee them, what we do not have is the assurance of autonomy set out in law. Natural health products are currently considered to be a subset of drugs under the Food and Drugs Act. Health Canada has yet to fulfill the Standing Committee's recommendation that the Act be amended to include a separate definition for natural health products and until this happens there is still the potential that natural health products could be pulled back under the drug regime. However the solution does NOT lie in regulating these products as foods.

Creating a separate definition for natural health products in the Food and Drugs Act would strengthen the NHPD's autonomy and its decision-making powers, while further distancing natural health products from the inappropriate regulations of the pharmaceutical regime. The Natural Health Products Directorate must be able to act independently and effectively refine the new regulations to meet the needs of consumers and the natural health products sector.

Canadians have increasingly turned to natural health products as a way to treat and/or reduce the risk of many diseases. Even though the current regulations allow natural health products to make such claims when supported by sufficient evidence, Section 3 and Schedule A of the Food and Drugs Act prevent this information from being shared with consumers on product labelling or in advertising.

Bill C-420 proposes to repeal Schedule A and Section 3, the antiquated parts of the Act first introduced in 1934 to prevent fraudulent claims. And a good thing too! Just about everybody consumers, health providers, retailers and suppliers support this change, which may partly explain why this private member's bill has progressed through second reading in the House of Commons.

Along with timely access to products, millions of Canadians want to have confidence in the natural health products they are taking to manage their health. As the Standing Committee deliberates yet again on what to do with natural health products, the CHFA is asking the committee to live up to its number one recommendation from their 1998 report that said natural health products are neither foods nor drugs. They deserve to be a distinct category.

As a consumer it is important that you are aware of all the issues surrounding Bill C-420 so that you can take an informed position.

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