Health Canada promises 'appropriate action' on questionable dietary supplements

Health Canada says it will take "appropriate action" after U.S. authorities this week announced a major crackdown on potentially dangerous dietary supplements.

U.S. authorities say some dietary supplements potentially dangerous

Products are frequently approved for sale in Canada based on what Health Canada acknowledges is 'weak evidence.'

Health Canada says it will take "appropriate action" after U.S. authorities this week announced a major crackdown on potentially dangerous dietary supplements.

In an emailed statement to CBC's the fifth estate, Health Canada said it was working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to determine if any of the dangerous products are on the market here and will respond "based on the risk posed to the general public."

This week, a fifth estate investigation revealed that Health Canada's oversight over the natural health products industry has slowly eroded.

Michael Kruse, interim executive director of the science advocacy group Bad Science Watch, told the CBC that the tough action by American authorities "underlines our warnings about the lack of quality control, market oversight, and a robust approval process at Health Canada."

The FDA along with the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies has announced civil and criminal charges against more than 100 makers and marketers of dietary supplements. This week the FDA shut down five companies "for distributing adulterated and misbranded dietary supplements" that are putting consumers' health at risk.

Inconsistent quality, deceptive advertising

Critics say similar problems exist in parts of the natural health products industry in Canada: inconsistent quality, deceptive advertising and unsubstantiated claims.
Michael Kruse, chair of the advocacy group Bad Science Watch, says Health Canada is failing Canadian consumers by pushing natural health products through the approval process too quickly. (CBC)

Unlike in the U.S., where manufacturers don't need to have their products pre-approved for safety and efficacy before they are put on the market, natural health products in Canada must be licensed.

But the investigation by the fifth estate showed that Health Canada now approves more than 90 per cent of applications to sell natural health products, compared with a rejection of around half the applications in the first few years. And under updated rules, products can now be approved in as little as 10 days.

Products are also frequently approved for sale in Canada with only minimal review and based on what Health Canada acknowledges is "weak evidence."

In the wake of the American crackdown, Health Canada told the fifth estate it does take "proactive measures to ensure the safety of products on the Canadian market," citing a one-month "compliance monitoring project" related to weight-loss products in early 2014.

But Kruse of Bad Science Watch is not impressed.

"While the supplement manufacturers are getting a free pass at Health Canada, Canadian consumers are put at risk from unscrupulous manufacturers and importers," he said.

"Health Canada needs to keep these businesses accountable and honest by instituting a vigorous monitoring program immediately, so Canadians can feel safe about the products they use to keep themselves healthy."

Products claim to cure Alzheimer's

In the U.S. this week, the government agencies said the companies they are targeting in the civil cases were claiming their products could cure Alzheimer's disease and cancer, treat herpes or alleviate opiate withdrawal symptoms.

Still others had products that contained active pharmaceutical ingredients not listed on the labels, while websites cited fake scientific studies and deceptively claimed to have "clinical proof."

The criminal charges include an 11-count indictment against USPlabs, the manufacturer of OxyElite Pro — a popular workout and weight loss supplement. In 2013, 47 Americans were hospitalized with liver injuries after taking the product; at least three received liver transplants and two people died. 

This product was not legally available for sale in Canada, but was found in British Columbia at two different supplement stores in Burnaby and Coquitlam and were pulled from shelves by Health Canada.