Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to rise today to speak to Bill C-28. In doing so, I will try to warn members of this House, particularly those on the government side, about certain aspects of this bill which we think introduce some safety concerns in the Food and Drug Act.
First I would like to repeat the purpose of this bill to put this debate in the proper context. Bill C-28 is designed to provide the Minister of Health with the authority to issue interim marketing authorizations for foods that contain certain substances at specified levels, and to exempt the foods from the applicable requirements of the Food and Drug Act and its regulations relating to the sale of those foods.
That is already a problem for us. We are talking about exempting certain foods from the applicable requirements relating to the sale of those foods. The substances involved are agricultural chemicals or their components or derivatives, food additives, veterinary drugs, and pest control products. Our understanding is that, based on numerous scientific studies, these products are used on various crops and in the production of foods and drugs. As was mentioned earlier, we all overwhelmingly recognize that this is no problem. But it is important that these scientific studies exist, in order to ensure that there is no risk.
Admittedly, the proposed amendments, in part, are in response to concerns raised by the Standing Joint Committee for the Scrutiny of Regulations regarding an administrative process put in place by Health Canada, and I quote:
—to allow Canadians faster access to safe and nutritious food products in specific circumstances.
That has been a source of concern for the Bloc Québécois for quite some time. And one of the main questions we ask ourselves is: Why is it that, at times, Health Canada appears to be unable to resist the pressure from major pharmaceutical and food companies which are in hurry to have their new products approved? Far from alleviating this concern, Bill C-28 exacerbates it by effectively enabling the minister to issue interim authorizations.
What is worrisome to the public in this bill is that Health Canada is increasing the examples of negligence. For instance, in the late 1990s, Health Canada caused an outcry when it wanted to authorize a recombinant bovine growth hormone despite opposition from scientists. In the end, the product's use was not approved.
We could easily have been in the same situation this morning had Bill C-28 passed, which begs the question: if it had passed, would the minister have authorized this product or would he have waited? We do not have the answer to that question, but Bill C-28 would have allowed him to do so. Who knows what the consequences would have been?
Preferring to take risks rather than precautions, the government is agreeing to approve drugs or food products without obtaining all the scientific data required by law. As a result, it is running great risks to the public. This is very important. In order to ensure human food safety, all the scientific data must be obtained. We know that far too often, when it comes to food and drugs, there are unanticipated long-term effects. We have seen this happen. That is why it is important to conduct a thorough scientific assessment of the products put on the market.
Accordingly, the Bloc Québécois has long wanted Canada to follow the European example of taking precaution on food products, drugs and pesticides. If such a principle were in place, GMOs would be labelled and the use of products with unknown consequences would be eliminated.
In our opinion, this bill gives the minister a lot of power. It is as if we were playing Russian roulette with products that could have extremely harmful effects on human health not only in the short and medium terms, but also in the long term.
Understandably, we have two major objections with Bill C-28. As I mentioned a couple of times since the beginning of my presentation, our first objection relates to the power given to the minister which is, as I understand it, a discretionary power to some extent. While this legislation does indeed give to the minister the power to issue interim marketing authorizations, the minister must base his decisions on scientific criteria. He cannot make such a decision merely because of the pressure put on him by a given industry or marketing sector.
The criterion to the effect that the food must not be harmful to the health of the purchaser or consumer, as stated in clause 30.2(1) of the bill, leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and we feel it would be important to set limits in this regard.
Of course, we are talking here about public confidence, not only in the government's regulations on food and drugs, but also in the food that ends up on the table. Indeed, the public must have total confidence in the food that it consumes on a regular basis, but also in drugs and pharmaceutical products. The latter are supposed to be beneficial to people who need them for the relief of various symptoms, or to deal with various diseases. Should these products worsen these people's condition, this would result in a loss of confidence that would be very hard to regain.
This is why it is important to reassure Quebeckers and Canadians on the safety and quality of the food that they consume. The minister should be required to inform the public of the reasons why he agrees to issue an interim marketing authorization. As I mentioned earlier, Bill C-28 would allow the minister to issue such authorizations by relying on criteria that leave a lot of room for interpretation.
Not only would it be absolutely essential that the minister base his decision on sound scientific studies, as I was saying earlier, but should he not do so, he should be required to explain the reasons for issuing these interim marketing authorizations and to specify which lobbies approached him regarding a particular product. This is necessary to ensure public confidence in food safety. That is why it is so important.
People's perceptions weigh very heavily in matters where safety and confidence are an issue. I would certainly not want to presume—and I certainly do not want to give that impression—that the minister would make decisions without proper consideration. I would never imply such a thing. We can only presume that an individual who is responsible for making such decisions will act in good faith.
However, we know full well that some people can be very convincing for all sorts of reasons. Before becoming a member of Parliament, I worked as a sales representative, as some of my colleagues may have done also. I would have never dared lie to one of my clients, but I certainly did my best to point out the positive aspects of the products I was selling.
This discretionary power granted to the minister needs to be properly framed. Unfortunately, Bill C-28 does not give any assurances in that regard.
While it is indeed unfortunate, it is also very typical of this government. It often offers us half-measures or expeditious measures. Surprisingly, on a certain number of issues, it does not seem to be able to take all the necessary precautions or make the necessary decisions, but in other cases, it is overzealous.
I must take a minute here to remind members briefly of a speech I made yesterday.
Yesterday, in my speech about tax havens, I clearly demonstrated how, over the years, the concerted action of the government has brought us to a point where a number of businesses are not paying their fair share of taxes. This situation was brought about by a number of very specific measures.
Unfortunately, in some ways, Bill C-28 is only a half measure and of no reassurance to the Canadian public. It opens the door to certain almost arbitrary decisions which might—though we hope not—endanger the health of our fellow citizens.
That is why, having analyzed the proposed mechanism and heard what civil society organizations have had to say, we will be opposing Bill C-28. We in the Bloc Québécois—and this is a deep-seated conviction—are of the opinion that consumer confidence is an essential component of food marketing. The advantages of an interim marketing authorization process like the one proposed in Bill C-28 are likely to be outweighed by the concerns it raises.
In an area like this one, where the safety of our fellow citizens is concerned, it seems to me that prudence must be the watchword, not speed. Any error could have very unfortunate consequences, and the health of those we purport to serve could suffer seriously as a result.
Extreme precaution is in order. Unfortunately, Health Canada has not addressed all the concerns relating to new product approvals. A mechanism such as this, which involves risk management rather than the principle of precaution, is liable to make consumers more wary. That is the situation. Instead of taking precautions to ensure all the necessary scientific studies have been done, it is a matter of risk management.
I will not, thank the Lord, ever be health minister. I would never want to have to manage that risk. As I said earlier, we can only assume the right decisions will be reached. What we need to do is to ensure they are, based on all necessary scientific studies. The opinion of one individual cannot be relied on, no matter how well-intentioned that individual may be.
The first objective of the Food and Drug Act is to ensure the quality of food and that it does not represent health risks. The health of Quebeckers and Canadians is paramount. Any authorization of new products should be done under the precautionary principle. Unfortunately, Bill C-28 does not include this principle.
This week, the government made a number of announcements. To be indulgent, I would say that these are an election ploy. Today, third reading of Bill C-28 raises deep concerns among us. Let us simply imagine what the reaction would be if the minister did not have all the data at his disposal and made a mistake that would put the health of our citizens at risk. I would not want to carry this burden on my shoulders. I would not want to have to make such a decision.
It is incredible—I was mentioning this earlier during question and comment period—to see that our colleagues from the Conservative Party support this bill, when they regularly defend good citizenship and safety. Yet, in Bill C-28, we find exactly the opposite of many principles that they normally support. I have to tell you that I was a little astounded earlier to hear them say they would support Bill C-28. I still have hope, since our NDP colleagues will certainly speak soon on this bill.
I hope that they will see the risks associated with the bill. If they do not, I invite them to talk to us. That goes for my Liberal and Conservative colleagues as well. I invite them to meet with me or with my colleague from Hochelaga who, I must say, knows the bill a lot better than I do, having spent many hours studying it in detail.
I was saying that the bill does not meet many of our concerns and that it seemed to be an amalgamation of half measures. That is unfortunate but not really surprising since the government is an expert in half measures. That is too often how it responds to situations.
The government has just introduced a federal assistance plan to alleviate the effects of high oil prices. We were very happy since it borrowed large parts of the package we proposed only a few weeks ago when the Minister of Transport was saying the government could not do anything. Only two weeks later, we see him using major parts of what we proposed. Unfortunately, the plan is full of half measures because it does not reach the right persons. There is nothing in it for taxi drivers, farmers and truckers. I know that this is not the object of our debate, but I thought it was important to give it as an example of half measures too often introduced by this government.
So Bill C-28, far from improving our fellow citizens' security, gives rise to concerns. How can we guarantee that a new product is perfectly safe for consumers? In the end, people will have to trust the good judgment of the Minister of Health. But I do not think that that is enough even though that minister does his best and acts in good faith. We think that Bill C-28 should be defeated. Let us say that the status quo would be better than the new regime proposed in Bill C-28.