WASHINGTON - About 400 people will gather this week to work on a plan to more closely harmonize Canadian and American industrial regulations across a wide range of sectors.
Industry groups and government regulators from both countries will meet Wednesday in Washington as part of an ongoing project to whittle down costly regulatory differences.
The sessions come as federal agencies in both countries are drafting public statements, due for release early next year, that must explain how they'll work with their cross-border counterparts to reduce duplication.
A Canadian official leading the discussion said there's been a sea change in attitudes since the Regulatory Co-operation Council initiative was first announced three years ago by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama.
Robert Carberry, an official at Canada's Privy Council Office, recalled the skeptical initial reaction from every federal regulator in both countries.
"When I said, 'We're here for economic competitiveness,' (every) department (on) both sides of the border said the same thing: 'You're in the wrong place. We do health and safety. We have nothing to do with the economy,'" Carberry said Monday.
"That's gone away. They're all seeing opportunity in this now."
The conversations between the U.S. and Canada and between the U.S. and Mexico are harbingers of a global movement that will take off in the coming decade, with regulatory co-operation embedded in future trade deals, Carberry predicted.
As for concrete examples, Carberry offered a few:
—Lipstick with SPF protection can be sold as lipstick in the U.S., but not in Canada, where it's considered a medical product. The result: it costs $700 to get it to market in the U.S., and $700,000 in Canada.
—For veterinary drugs, Canada and the U.S. are already moving to streamline the approval process.
—On vehicle standards, the two countries have begun sharing data from their test facilities, which Carberry said can save $100,000 per test.
—There are separate standards for children's car seats, he said, simply because the regulations developed in separate silos.
"We both love our babies the same — there's no difference there," he said. "And there are thousands and thousands of those kinds of examples out there."
Some industries are more challenging than others. He pointed to food safety as one particularly complex area, given overlapping rules and responsibilities for single products.
In one example cited by industry, a can of vegetable soup in the U.S. falls under the Food And Drug Administration — but if it's beef and veggie soup, responsibility falls under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Some observers are expressing concern about the possible consequences of the process. They fear that the practical result of regulatory co-operation might really be deregulation, and less public safety.
The group Environmental Defence said Canada has, for example, banned or restricted over 500 chemicals from personal-care products. It said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cited only 200 products for similar safety risks, and banned only five.
In a statement, the group said it supports increased scientific co-operation and sharing data. But it said it will be watching this week's developments closely, and cautiously.
"Many aspects of the (regulatory co-operation) project deserve more attention and discussion."
The national governments insisted, in a joint document released last summer, that each country will retain its own sovereign right to make regulatory decisions.
The main goal, Carberry said, is to make sure that future regulatory differences are intentional — and not accidentally produced by poor communication.
"What we're trying to avoid is the unconscious decision to not line things up," he said. "Nobody had taken the time to actually sit down and say, 'Hey, maybe we should talk to each other first.'"
Meetings like those in Washington should be happening more often, said Maryscott Greenwood of the Canadian American Business Council.
"Officials do meet with stakeholders, as evidenced by the meetings in D.C. this week, but those interactions are few and far between," Greenwood said.
"It is our view that if any two countries in the world can be more efficient at regulatory co-operation, it is Canada and the U.S."