May 4, 2020 2:42PM

Regulatory Barriers in a Crisis, Canada Edition

Anyone who grew up in Canada (outside of Quebec) will likely remember spending mornings reading the back of cereal boxes, first in English, and then in French. In fact, almost everything you buy has bilingual packaging. As a kid, I never thought much about this. It was just a fun way for me to practice French every morning. But as an adult who spends almost all her time researching regulatory barriers to trade, product requirements like these take on a whole new meaning. When I read a story about how Canada was relaxing this requirement for some products, I was naturally intrigued.

In a recent online event, I spoke about how government regulations can act as barriers to trade, even if they are not protectionist in intent. Canada’s bilingual packaging requirement is a great example of this. But there are also countless other examples, such as testing requirements for makeup or medicines, and even whether you can call a veggie burgerburger, or almond milk, milk. While as consumers we may not notice these barriers in day to day life, producers certainly do. Particularly now, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, where there are product shortages all over the world, this trade problem is more relevant than ever.

This is exactly why Canada recently relaxed bilingual labeling requirements for some cleaning products coming from the United States. Just like in the United States, grocery store shelves in Canada have noticeable empty spaces in the cleaning aisle. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thus defended the action, citing the need for access to disinfectants and hand sanitizers where suppliers face shortages or logistical challenges in their supply chains. This makes a lot of practical sense. Though Canada will revert back to strict enforcement of bilingual packaging after the current crisis is over, its willingness to relax this requirement will undoubtedly help Canadian consumers get the products they need to feel safe now.

This is an important lesson for how to address regulatory barriers in a crisis situation, when every day that passes is critical. Delay is incredibly costly. For instance, as countries around the world race to create a vaccine, medical treatments, or test kits for COVID-19, making sure that we can have access to these innovations as quickly as possibly should be a top priority for policymakers. My colleague, Dr. Jeffrey Singer, has been closely following the regulatory failures that have impeded testing capacity in the United States, including preventing the use of tests developed abroad. Why should we not accept tests developed in South Korea, a trusted ally, for instance?

While COVID-19 may bring attention to these issues now, even once the crisis is over, we should work towards limiting the burden of regulatory barriers on trade wherever possible. Repatriating global supply chains is not the answer to shortages. Instead, we should look at the barriers we have at home that impede our ability to respond quickly and to help our citizens stay safe. If Canada can relax something so sacrosanct as its bilingual labelling requirements, un élément fondamental de notre identité nationale, then perhaps other barriers can be addressed too.