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Regulating Health Products and Food for Canadians


The Health Products and Food Branch

Canada’s health products and food branch is responsible for ensuring that the therapeutic, diagnostic and other healthcare products available to Canadians are safe and effective. This includes drugs, medical devices and natural health products.

When a new drug is being considered for sale in Canada, it must undergo a rigorous review process.


The foods we eat play a vital role in maintaining good health and promoting well-being. The Food Directorate works to ensure that Canadians can get the nutrition they need from the foods they eat, while protecting them against disease and minimizing risk factors for injury or illness.

The drug review process allows scientists at Health Canada, and on occasion outside experts, to assess the safety and efficacy of drugs before they are authorized for sale in Canada. Drugs include prescription and non-prescription pharmaceuticals, as well as disinfectants and sanitizers with disinfectant claims.

Natural Health Products provide Canadians with a range of benefits such as the prevention, treatment, symptomatic relief or cure of diseases, injuries or chronic conditions that individuals can recognize and manage on their own or in conjunction with health professionals. The Natural Health Products Directorate ensures that natural health products are safe, effective and of high quality while respecting freedom of choice and philosophical and cultural diversity.


Drugs are substances that, when taken orally, through a skin patch, by injection or by another route, enter the body and act on specific parts to change the way a person feels or behaves. They may help to prevent, treat or cure diseases and ailments. They are also used to enhance performance or increase alertness, and can decrease physical pain.

Scientific research for new drugs involves testing chemicals and substances on different kinds of living things, such as laboratory animals or cells. Eventually, scientists may find a substance that has the desired effect on humans when administered under the supervision of health care professionals.

HC’s HPFB regulates the safety, efficacy and quality of therapeutic and diagnostic products, such as prescription and non-prescription drugs, and disinfectants and sanitizers with disinfectant claims. It also reviews clinical trial protocols to ensure participants’ protection and that the trials are conducted in a manner consistent with prevailing regulatory requirements. HPFB has two separate directorates that primarily focus on monitoring product compliance: the Natural Health Products Directorate and the Inspection and Compliance Branch (CAN-41). (See Table 1.)

Natural Health Products

People have been using natural health products for thousands of years to promote well-being and treat illness. Some of these products have become the basis for today’s common medicines, such as willow bark to relieve fever or fish oil to prevent heart disease.

However, not all natural health products are safe and effective and some may cause side effects. It is important to read and follow the directions on product labels. It is also important to talk with a health care professional about the use of any natural health product, especially for children.

While Health Canada has made great strides in implementing the Natural Health Products Regulations, it is time to move forward with enforcement and give Canadians the assurance that all NHPs sold on the market are safe, effective and of high quality. This is especially important in light of recent surveys that indicate that consumer confidence in NHPs has been undermined by the ongoing sale of non-compliant products on the market.


Drugs are chemical substances that can change the way our bodies and minds work. They can be natural or synthetic, legal or illegal, more or less risky and have greater or lesser therapeutic benefits. They are regulated by law and international treaties.

For example, certain narcotics (say: nar-KAH-tiks) dull the senses and relieve pain. Other narcotics, such as heroin, are illegal because they can cause addiction and overdoses that may lead to death. Some drugs stimulate the brain’s reward centre and increase feelings of pleasure. They include hallucinogens like PCP and LSD, and stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine.

Before a drug can be sold to Canadians, it must be approved by Health Canada through the drug review process. The review is done by scientists from the Health Products and Food Branch, and sometimes outside experts. Before a drug can be sold in Canada, it must also pass the quality assurance process. The health products and food branch is divided into seven operational Directorates that have specific regulatory responsibilities.

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