Can Health Canada use Twitter to battle misleading marketing used by cosmetics companies?
Instead of bringing in stronger regulations to deal with misleading labels on cosmetics that could make people sick, Health Canada says it's planning to create new websites and market them on social media outlets such as Twitter to inform consumers about serious risks.
Responding to questions from National Observer about a stinging audit released last week by the federal environment commissioner, the department admitted that cosmetics companies were using marketing tactics to label products with messaging that could mislead consumers.
"Terms such as ‘hypoallergenic,’ ‘preservative-free,’ ‘fragrance-free’ and ‘unscented’ are considered marketing terms and not defined, reviewed, or approved as health or safety claims by Health Canada," the department said in a statement.
But it said it was planning to build a website with information Canadians could use so that they wouldn't be fooled by the "marketing" into thinking that a product was safe.
"This content will be promoted through social media and other communication channels," the department said.
This was among the steps the department told National Observer it's taking in response to the audit, released in early June. But one critic said the department was shirking its responsibilities.
"Pledging to inform the public that they can’t guarantee their safety isn’t the right response here," said Maggie Macdonald, who manages a program at Toronto-based Environmental Defence that scrutinizes toxic substances in consumer products.
Audit flagged risks of counterfeit cosmetics
The audit, released by Julie Gelfand, Comissioner of the Environment and Sustainable development, raised serious questions about the department's oversight of the industry, noting that the public was at risk from a range of products, including counterfeit cosmetics.
It also noted that potentially deadly toxins in cosmetic products were continuing to flow into Canada after a Health Canada program to help regulate the industry received funding but failed to materialize.
“We’re not seeing cosmetic safety in this country," Macdonald said. "To say that we don’t need changes to the regulations is an not an adequate response to the problems we that have been highlighted here.”
In its lengthy email response to National Observer’s questions, the agency said that in 2012 the department “carefully considered a series of potential changes to the system, but concluded that the proposed changes would not result in a substantial improvement in the department’s ability to manage risks from cosmetics.”
Instead, the agency identified improvements it subsequently made to the cosmetics program, including developing an online system for industry to notify Health Canada within 10 days of the sale of a product within Canada; and regular updates to the Cosmetic Ingredient Hot List, the list of substances prohibited for use in cosmetic products.
A strong system to manage risks to the health of Canadians
Darren Praznik, the president and CEO of the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association has previously criticized the agency for being a “ bureaucratic, siloed mess.”
Health Canada responded by saying that the country has one of the strongest cosmetic and consumer product safety regimes in the world.
The department maintains that “the Food and Drugs Act and its associated Cosmetic Regulations already make up one of the most stringent systems in the world for managing the health risks associated with cosmetics.”
When it comes to cosmetics that use the terms fragrance, parfum, aroma or flavour in their ingredient lists, the department plans to test selected cosmetics for specific substances.
If problematic ingredients are detected, Health Canada said actions could include a voluntary recall, product seizure or prosecution.
The department currently receives approximately 30,000 notifications regarding cosmetics annually with information on product formulation. Health Canada also says it has substantially reduced its processing time for those and is developing a service standard for processing all incoming notifications.
Risks associated with cosmetic use downplayed
MacDonald said she also found it bizarre that the department does not require companies to report incidents of a consumer reacting negatively to a product. The department said it took this position “because cosmetic use typically presents a low risk to human health and safety.”
But MacDonald said that some cosmetic ingredients can cause strong reactions, including triggering asthma, and allergies, while a number of the ingredients on the Cosmetic Ingredient Hot List are carcinogenic.
“I think to downplay the risks associated with cosmetic use is not an appropriate response here.”
MacDonald believes regulatory changes should include mandatory premarket notification - which means the agency would have to test and pre-approve any cosmetic before it entered the market - and mandatory reporting requirements for companies in the instance of an adverse reaction to one of their products.
“It seems very often they keep repeating we have a good system, but the report from the commissioner and the auditor-general’s office indicates that the system is not working, so we really need some changes quickly to protect the public,” MacDonald said.
Health Canada's responds to questions
Below is the full response from Health Canada to National Observer's questions about the audit.
Health Canada welcomes the findings of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, and is committed to making improvements to better address and prevent risks from chemicals in household consumer products and cosmetics. Health Canada has one of the strongest cosmetic and consumer product safety regimes in the world. This report’s findings will help us further strengthen Health Canada’s ability to protect Canadians from potential health and safety risks posed by consumer products and cosmetics. The Department has already taken steps to address some of the issues raised in the report and is committed to taking further actions to address the other findings, such as increased proactive testing of cosmetics.
Audit recommendation: Health Canada assess the scope and magnitude of risks posed by e-commerce products, and inform consumers and retailers about the risks and the limitations of regulatory oversight and recourse in these areas
Health Canada is working with international partners, including the OECD, on initiatives to improve awareness of possible safety risks associated with online shopping. Health Canada plans to conduct a follow-up survey of online retailers in early 2017. Health Canada will be conducting outreach to consumers and retailers on this topic over the coming months.
To date, a new online shopping web page has been launched and a Consumer Product Update has been issued to advise consumers of potential risks from buying consumer products online.
Audit recommendation: Health Canada assess the scope and magnitude of health and safety risks posed by counterfeit products, and inform consumers and retailers about any significant risks identified
Health Canada works with its regulatory partners to implement the Combatting Counterfeit Products Act by helping to identify and address human health and safety concerns related to counterfeit products. Health Canada is planning further outreach activities to inform consumers and retailers of the possible risks associated with counterfeit products.
Audit recommendation: Health Canada inform consumers that it does not regularly test cosmetic products for prohibited and restricted substances, microbial contamination, and heavy metals
As part of Health Canada’s ongoing outreach plan for cosmetics, additional activities will be undertaken to inform consumers about how product testing is carried out by Health Canada. These activities include developing and promoting new web content and using social media and other communications channels.
Audit recommendation: Health Canada do product testing to determine the extent to which consumer products and cosmetics include prohibited and/or unsafe concentrations of substances under the labels ‘fragrance’, ‘parfum’, ‘aroma’, or ‘flavour’ and consider options to encourage manufacturers to provide the Department, on a confidential basis, with the complete list and concentrations of substances that comprise ingredients listed under these terms.
Currently, Health Canada proactively samples consumer products and cosmetics through its Cyclical Enforcement plan. As a result of this audit recommendation, the Department is reviewing cosmetics testing with respect to products that use the terms ‘fragrance’, ‘parfum’, ‘aroma’, or ‘flavour’ in their ingredient lists. The Department intends to sample selected cosmetics to test for specific substances of concern that may fall under these umbrella terms. If levels of concern are detected, appropriate risk management actions will be taken which could include a voluntary recall, product seizure, or prosecution.
Health Canada will explore options to encourage manufacturers to disclose, on a confidential basis, the complete list and concentrations of substances that comprise ingredients listed under the umbrella terms ‘fragrance’, ‘parfum’, ‘aroma’, and ‘flavour’.
Audit Recommendation: Health Canada inform consumers that marketing terms such as ‘hypoallergenic’, ‘preservative-free’, ‘fragrance-free’, and ‘unscented’ should not be confused with health and safety claims
Terms such as ‘hypoallergenic,’ ‘preservative-free,’ ‘fragrance-free’ and ‘unscented’ are considered marketing terms and not defined, reviewed, or approved as health or safety claims by Health Canada. Health Canada will develop web content that will explain to consumers that these kinds of terms do not necessarily represent a higher level of safety, and that consumers should make informed choices about the purchase and use of all products. This content will be promoted through social media and other communication channels.
Audit recommendation: Health Canada verify the extent of industry compliance with incident reporting requirements for consumer products to assist the Department in tracking compliance and prioritizing its oversight and response activities
Since the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act (CCPSA) was introduced in 2011, Health Canada has focused its efforts on promoting compliance with the new requirements for incident reporting set out in the Act. Health Canada will carry out a series of planned inspections to determine the level of compliance with the mandatory incident reporting requirements of the CCPSA. A final report on these findings will be generated to help the Department to set out recommendations for future years.
Audit recommendation: Health Canada update its cosmetic notification form to request voluntary disclosure of the actual or expected date of first sale in Canada
The Cosmetic Regulations require manufacturers and importers to notify Health Canada within 10 days after they first sell a cosmetic in Canada. The completed Cosmetic Notification Form provides specific product information to Health Canada including:
- · Addresses and contact information of the manufacturers, importers, and distributors
· Function of the cosmetic
· Form of the cosmetic (for example, cream or gel)
· Ingredients of the cosmetic
· Concentration of each ingredient
The Cosmetic Notification Form will be updated to include the voluntary disclosure of the actual or expected date of first sale in Canada. Guidance documents for industry will also be updated to reflect the change.
Audit recommendation: Health Canada improve its follow-up of cosmetic notifications with prohibited substances by verifying that companies have implemented corrective actions and that non-compliant products are no longer available to Canadians.
Health Canada receives approximately 30,000 cosmetic notifications each year. As part of these notifications, companies must provide Health Canada with information regarding product formulation. The Department has substantially reduced the processing time for incoming notifications with the introduction of online cosmetic notifications and prohibited substances are automatically identified so that Health Canada can respond accordingly. The Department will be developing a service standard for processing all incoming cosmetic notifications.
Health Canada also continues to improve its follow-up actions to verify that corrective actions have been implemented and that non-compliant products are removed from the market.
Audit Recommendation: Health Canada should improve the verification of product recalls and the documentation of overall recall effectiveness
All recalls posted to the Government of Canada’s Recalls and Safety Alerts Database are subject to strict standard operating procedures and service standards that are in place to help protect Canadians’ health and safety. After posting a recall, Health Canada follows up with the company to verify the effectiveness of the recall. If it is determined that unsafe products remain on the market, the company may be required to repeat the recall process. Further action may also be taken, including issuing additional public communications. Health Canada may also prosecute the company for failure to comply with regulatory requirements.
Health Canada has continually introduced more stringent timeframes into its service standards for recall effectiveness since the coming into force of the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act in 2011. The Department will continue with improvements to the recall process through standard operating procedures, continued industry education, and increasing performance monitoring.
Canada has one of the strongest cosmetic and consumer product safety regimes in the world. We have a strong system in place to prevent and manage risks to the health of Canadians, and to provide them with information so they can make informed decisions about the products they buy.
In Canada, consumer products are regulated by the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act (CCPSA) and cosmetics are regulated under the Food and Drugs Act (FDA). Both laws clearly prohibit the sale of products that may pose a risk to health.
On an ongoing basis, Health Canada provides regulatory information and guidance to industry so that they know and understand their responsibilities under these Acts.
The Food and Drugs Act and its associated Cosmetic Regulations already make up one of the most stringent systems in the world for managing the health risks associated with cosmetics. . In 2012, the Department carefully considered a series of potential changes to the system, but concluded that the proposed changes would not result in a substantial improvement in the Department’s ability to manage risks from cosmetics.
The Department has, however, carried out a variety of improvements to the Cosmetics Program, such as:
· the development of an online system for the submission of cosmetic notifications;
· regular updates to the Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist, including revisions to make it clearer and easier to use by industry; and,
· working with international regulatory counterparts on areas of concern through the International Cooperation on Cosmetics Regulation.
Both Canada and the US collect information on cosmetics incidents on a voluntary basis from both industry and consumers and take action as appropriate. Incident reporting is not a legal requirement because cosmetic use typically presents a low risk to human health and safety. Common health impacts would include things like minor skin or eye irritation. If a chemical is identified that could widespread negative health impacts, have more significant impacts, including more severe reactions of the skin or eyes, or longer-term health impacts are identified, appropriate action is taken.
For more details on what Health Canada is doing regarding buying consumer products and cosmetics online, please see: http://www.healthycanadians.gc.ca/recall-alert-rappel-avis/hc-sc/2016/58602a-eng.php