Canada trails other nations on banning animal-tested cosmetics. A new plan aims to change that | CBC Radio

The Current23:18Plans to end animal testing for cosmetics

Canada could ban testing of cosmetics on animals, a move which some animal rights activists say makes them “very hopeful” for the future.

“There’s a lot of support from this across parties,” said Camille Labchuk, executive director of the organization Animal Justice.

The ban aims to change the Food and Drugs Act to outlaw the sale of cosmetics that were tested on animals or contain animal-tested ingredients. These include products such as make-up, nail polish and perfume.

Currently, the act does not require animal testing to demonstrate the safety of cosmetics. But Labchuk says stronger, mandatory language is needed in the legislation.

“It’s not enough just to be aspirational and try to encourage alternatives to animal tests,” the animal rights lawyer told The Currents Matt Galloway.

The proposal is being developed by Health Canada — and according to The Globe and Mail, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos is poised to push the changes forward. 

The move would bring Canada in line with more than 40 countries that have limited or banned animal-tested cosmetics. But in a statement to The Current, Health Canada said no changes are expected to be finalized before August.

“The Government recognizes that Canadians are concerned about the well-being of animals and supports the elimination of cosmetic animal testing,” the statement read in part.

A white rat stands on a desk in front of several bottles of unknown liquids.
A white rat stands on a desk in an animal laboratory at a medical school in China. (China Photos/Getty Images)

Accepting alternatives

Dr. Charu Chandrasekera, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods, says the track record for animal safety testing isn’t “impressive.”

“Ninety-five per cent of drugs tested to be safe or effective in animals failed in human clinical trials,” she told Galloway.

“And with product testing, there are over 85,000 chemicals currently in commerce where we don’t know the full range of toxic effects. So if we were to rely on these conventional animal methods, it would take a couple of centuries.”

Part of the challenge with moving away from animal testing is “the centuries-old global culture of science engrained in animal testing,” said Chandrasekera.

Animal tests are considered the gold standard, she said, “when they may not even be suitable to be the bronze standard, in many cases.”

There is also a lack of awareness among Canadians to the extent of animal testing happening in this country, according to Chandrasekera.

“Most Canadians are unaware … that we use well over 4 million animals annually, and they’re also unaware of the extent to which animal testing is replaceable,” she said.

One of the ways Chandrasekera’s team is trying to show that is by engineering human tissue through 3D bioprinting in order to create diseases and toxicity in dishes. 

“The goal is to really create human on a chip where you’re combining all these different organ chips to create a whole human response where these chips are connected to each other,” she said. 

Dr. Charu Chandrasekera, the founder of the Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods, holds up a tissue sample in a petri dish. (Submitted by Charu Chandrasekera)

“It would be used for drug testing and chemical toxicity testing; that you can throw in a drug into that system and look at effects very quickly and much, much faster than it would take to do this in animals.”

Chandrasekera said these models are not “one method that fits all,” and their reliability and effectiveness depend on the context of use. But there are other tests recognized as reliable and effective by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — of which Canada is a part.

The first step is accepting those alternatives, though.

“We really need to get beyond the Stone Age thinking and start accepting alternatives which are poised to better predict human outcomes in the long run,” she said

‘No substitute for laws’

Canada is far from the first country to consider implementing a ban on animal-tested products into its legislature.

More than 40 nations have already passed laws to limit or ban cosmetic animal testing, including the European Union, which introduced a complete ban in 2013.

“Every time I go to give talks abroad, and especially in the European Union, people always ask me, ‘why don’t Canadians care?’ And I don’t have an answer for that,” said Chandrasekera.

Chandrasekera said the EU and parts of the United States have a headstart on Canada when it comes to legislative mandates, both in their implementation and in their financial backing.

“There are national strategic roadmaps and parliamentary resolutions,” she said. “There are federally funded national centres and congressionally mandated committees to evaluate alternative methods.”

“And there has been consistent financial investment in the billions to develop and validate non-animal methods with the passage of bills.”

A lady holding a chicken stands on the centre-right of the photo, facing the camera.
Animal rights lawyer Camille Labchuk says voluntary standards for cosmetic testing are no substitute for laws and regulations. (Submitted by Camille Labchuk)

There have been some efforts to limit animal testing in Canada in the past. In 2015, the Cruelty-Free Cosmetics Act aimed to amend the Food and Drugs Act to prohibit cosmetic animal testing and the sale of animal-tested cosmetics in Canada.

The bill moved through committee with full support in 2017 and was even passed by the Senate in 2018, but it only passed the first reading in the House of Commons before the legislature session ended in 2019.

But for the most part, the government has left “voluntary standards to sort of police this area a little bit,” which Labchuk says is not a transparent process.

“It’s no substitute for laws and regulations like they have, say, in the European Union — or in the United States, where the [United States Department of Agriculture] inspects labs, and as the public, you can see inspection reports and see what happens in those labs,” she said. 

Produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo.