Published: Friday, June 06, 2008
The trenches are dug, and the bugles are sounding. On one side are Canadians convinced the government is about to snipe their vitamins and herbs. On the other side are federal Health Minister Tony Clement and Health Canada bureaucrats, sharpening their talking points and unfurling a Conservative blue banner labelled "Consumer Health Safety."
But it's not a war of attrition, it's a war of nutrition, and the flashpoint is Bill C-51. This is the legislation intended to amend the Natural Health Act, which covers natural health products.
"Natural health product" (NHP) is the blanket term for organic supplements said to have medicinal benefits. This includes herbs, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, extracts, fungus, algae, essential fatty acids, and animal materials. It's a huge industry, and a big deal in places like health-conscious Vancouver.
It's not just the NHP manufacturers and retailers who have a stake in this, but the millions of Canadian consumers who swear by the products' health benefits.
Bill C-51 will purportedly protect Canadians from untested NHPs. But with no recorded deaths in Canada from NHPs, the question many Canadians are asking is, why the great urgency to fix something that isn't broken?
One of these critics is lawyer Shawn Buckley, president of the Kamloops-based Natural Health Products Protection Association, who spoke this week at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church in Vancouver. He says he started "on the other side," representing the Canadian government against a natural health product supplier, but had a "road to Damascus" conversion after the same client asked Buckley to represent him in court.
After years of legislative muscle-flexing against NHPs under both Liberal and Conservative governments, Buckley believes the NHP industry now faces a complete "takedown" from Health Canada.
The Canadian government assumes every natural health product in Canada is dangerous, until it completes the licensing process. Almost all the products you see on health food store shelves are without licences. But Health Canada has allowed them to remain on the shelves for now, because their manufacturers have applications pending. The odds are not favourable. According to the Natural Health Products Protection Association, an estimated 60 per cent of licence applications fail.
Small players in the NHP industry don't have the finances to conduct double blind scientific studies of their own. If Health Canada says they have to remove their products from the shelves, they have to comply, and the government is under no obligation to show them documentation why. Under Bill C-51, NHP manufacturers face up to $5 million for an indictable offence and two years in prison.
The bill has other amendments that would make Joe Stalin nod in approval, Buckley insists. It eliminates the law of trespass, one of the foundations of civil law. Through its enforcement, police are allowed to venture onto property–and seize property–without a warrant.
"I was taught to hate the Communist state because where they were on property rights," says the lawyer of his Cold War youth. Now he believes Canada is picking up some nasty totalitarian habits, under the pretext of protecting Grandma from a bottle of rogue ginseng.
Health Canada critics say that the real purpose of Bill C-51 is to bring Canada into compliance with Codex Alimentarius, a United Nations initiative to globally "harmonize" food and supplement standards.
There's little doubt that there are some NHPs out there with exaggerated health claims. But you could say the same about many pharmaceutical drugs. The major difference is that legal drugs are far more likely to kill you than NHPs. According to New Zealand risk analysis researcher Ron Law, "of the more than two million visits to U.S.A. emergency departments due to poisoning, less than 10 (.000005) were related to fatalities associated with natural health products, whilst 78 per cent of the fatal poisoning cases were associated with pharmaceutical products."
NHPs aren't just safer than physician-prescribed pharmaceutical drugs, they're safer than ordinary store-bought food, says Law. Let that thought roll around in your head for a bit. You are at a greater risk of dying from a ham sandwich on a hot summer afternoon than a natural health product.
As Buckley pointed out in his talk, peanut butter is riskier than any NHP, yet the Canadian government has no "Peanut Butter Directorate" investigating candy bar makers. In terms of tilting at windmills, Tony Clement and his foot soldiers couldn't have mounted a more Quixotic campaign.