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Canada’s natural health products industry calls on Ottawa to reverse course on labelling regulations

CHFA hopes its SOS campaign will create change before the requirements are enacted in 2025

Canada’s natural health products (NHP) industry is hopeful that a major advocacy campaign could convince the federal government to rethink labelling regulations that could lead to higher prices, fewer homegrown companies and fewer products on store shelves.

The Save our Supplements (SOS) campaign, led by the Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) and launched last year, has seen more than one million postcards sent to MPs, Health Canada and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

It’s “one of the largest advocacy campaigns in the last few decades,” says CHFA president and CEO Aaron Skelton. “I think it’s a strong indicator to government that they’ve gotten this wrong and they need to pause, reset and engage with stakeholders appropriately.”

READ: How 'alarming' new labelling requirements could impact Canada's natural health products industry

The new plain language labelling requirement, set to come into effect next year, aims to align natural product labelling with those for over the counter (OTC) products and drugs. Health Canada says the new labelling will reduce confusion and allow consumers to locate information about safe use by introducing such elements as a standardized Product Facts Table and standardized fonts and sizes.

However, “they didn’t consider the industry effects around these changes,” Skelton says. “Most concerning is they failed to really consult labelling professionals and the science that underpins labelling science.” 

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When OTC drugs were subjected to similar labelling regulations in 2014, one in six disappeared from store shelves, Skelton says. 

A May 2023 study conducted for the CHFA by Deloitte found 20% of NHP companies in Canada are looking at relocating outside the country because of the labelling requirements and 75% say they will have to remove products from the market. 

Joel Thuna, general manager of Global Botanical in Barrie, Ont., says his 160-year-old company has never received a complaint about labelling. The company sells hundreds of NHPs in pharmacies, grocery and health food stores across Canada.

“I’ve tried to create labels using the guidance document from Health Canada and it’s just a living nightmare.”

Given the additional information required, many products will need fold-out or peel back labels which are costly and are not recyclable. “If the government wants to go ahead and make us put a ton more information that's what QR codes are for,” Thuna says.

In addition to graphic design and translation costs, the new labels will have to be approved at a cost by organizations that certify products. The cost will be “prohibitive” particularly for products that sell less than 1,000 units a year.

READ: A look at what’s helping drive the vitamins and supplements boom

Many products will end up only being sold online by foreign companies that are not subject to Health Canada regulations, Thuna predicts.

Still, Skelton is hopeful the SOS campaign could lead to changes before the new labelling requirements are enacted in 2025. “You have to be optimistic when you have such a groundswell of Canadians expressing their concern. I don’t see industry and I definitely don’t see Canadians allowing this to go through without continuing to raise their voices.”

The NHP industry is also opposed to new cost recovery fees announced by Health Canada for regulatory activities such as product evaluations and site licenses. They would be implemented at the same time as the labelling requirements and could “decimate” the industry and force smaller businesses to shut down Canadian operations, the CHFA says.

The fees are based on the model for drugs, despite the fact “government has stated natural health products are not drugs,” Skelton says. Industry isn’t opposed to fees, but the fees “should be for a system that’s efficient and working properly.”

Thuna calculates the cost recovery fees would increase his costs by more than $300,000 per year which exceeds his profits.

Health Canada is “burying us under red tape to oblivion,” he says. “How does this serve Canadians?”

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