VANCOUVER - Health Canada is so secretive about its inspections of overseas drug-manufacturing plants that Canadians can't be confident their medications are safe, says a drug policy researcher.

Alan Cassels of the University of Victoria said most prescription drugs are manufactured overseas but that Health Canada has released only limited information about its inspections of foreign manufacturing plants after he made numerous inquiries.

Cassels said Health Canada has told him only that it conducted 35 inspections between 2006 and 2011, but won't provide data on which countries were involved or the findings.

"Health Canada can't tell us what they inspected, what they found, what remedies they made and we have no idea whether the few inspections they did had any effect. So my question is, and I've had this question for many years, why is everything so secret?"

He said that while the federal regulator may be influenced by the pharmaceutical industry's desire to protect its proprietary information, he's merely after data related to people's safety.

"Essentially, whose team is Health Canada on?"

But a spokesman for Health Canada said Monday that it has one of the safest and most rigorous drug-approval systems in the world.

Any foreign site that makes a drug product sold in Canada has to meet Canadian standards of good manufacturing practice, Sean Upton, a spokesman for Health Canada, said in a statement.

Upton said Health Canada will verify that these standards are being met in a number of ways, including inspection of foreign plants and taking in information provided by mutually recognized inspections conducted by other countries.

But Cassels said Health Canada issues warnings about certain overseas-manufactured drugs only when it gets information from the countries that produce them.

The agency has also not released data about drugs that are produced in Canada with chemicals imported from foreign countries, he said.

"It would shock most people to know that the manufacturing plants in Canada largely use raw ingredients from places like India, China and Puerto Rico and so on, which is not a bad thing, but how often are these plants inspected?"

Earlier this year, the Quebec-based plant of the generic pharmaceutical company Sandoz stopped making several commonly used painkillers, antibiotics and anesthetics while it upgraded its manufacturing standards after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration raised concerns.

The FDA inspected the site because the drugs manufactured there are used by Americans.

At the time, the head of Health Canada's drug directorate said the government would expedite approval of offshore medications for use by Canadians as long as they meet regulatory standards for quality.

Cassels said that's all the more reason Health Canada should provide information about its inspections of overseas drug-manufacturing plants.

However, he's also concerned that recent government layoffs mean there will be fewer Health Canada staff to conduct such inspections in or outside the country.

"You've got a federal regulator that is already seriously undermanned and undergunned and clearly not doing the kinds of inspections overseas that we would expect them to be doing and at the same time laying off people, so even reducing their ability to make sure that the drug supply is safe."

Upton said most of the drugs imported into Canada, or about 80 per cent, come from countries where there is a mutual-recognition agreement for inspections. The signing of these agreements includes an evaluation process to make sure that drug compliance programs from different regulator authorities are equal, he said.

Dr. Muhammad Mamdani, a pharmacist and director of the Applied Health Research Centre at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital, agreed with Cassels and said the public needs assurance that their prescription drugs are safe.

He said safety standards for brand drugs, versus generics, may be more rigorous because pharmaceutical companies typically assume a huge liability if there are problems.

However, Health Canada should still reveal information about its inspection findings, Mamdani said.

And while generic drug makers, which benefit from the millions of dollars in clinical trials and research that have already been done, are required by Health Canada to have so-called good manufacturing practice certification, their safety practices must still be scrutinized, Mamdani said.

"A company can say it adheres to good manufacturing certification but then you have to do audits. The problem with the audits is how many audits are you going to do? How much money do you have to have? You'd have to fly out to all these countries and inspect all of them on a regular basis and for many reasons, it's not practical or possible."

However, Mamdani said Canada is part of the Pharmaceutical Inspection Cooperation Scheme of about 41 member countries, including the United States, Belgium, Australia, and Czechoslovakia, which share information on inspections so the process doesn't have to be repeated.

"I'm not sure how much Canada leverages external groups' evaluations," he said. "I don't know how many they do themselves."

While it would be nearly impossible to conduct audits of every drug-manufacturing country's plants, "Health Canada should at least disclose what they have done," Mamdani said.

"They should be transparent. And if the drugs are safe, why shouldn't the information be available?"

"At the very least, make available to the public a general sense of is the process working and is the drug safe?"

Related on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • 1912

    Former President Theodore Roosevelt champions national health insurance as he unsuccessfully tries to ride his progressive Bull Moose Party back to the White House. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

  • 1935

    President Franklin D. Roosevelt favors creating national health insurance amid the Great Depression but decides to push for Social Security first. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

  • 1942

    Roosevelt establishes wage and price controls during World War II. Businesses can't attract workers with higher pay so they compete through added benefits, including health insurance, which grows into a workplace perk. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • 1945

    President Harry Truman calls on Congress to create a national insurance program for those who pay voluntary fees. The American Medical Association denounces the idea as "socialized medicine" and it goes nowhere. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

  • 1960

    John F. Kennedy makes health care a major campaign issue but as president can't get a plan for the elderly through Congress. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

  • 1965

    President Lyndon B. Johnson's legendary arm-twisting and a Congress dominated by his fellow Democrats lead to creation of two landmark government health programs: Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1974

    President Richard Nixon wants to require employers to cover their workers and create federal subsidies to help everyone else buy private insurance. The Watergate scandal intervenes. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

  • 1976

    President Jimmy Carter pushes a mandatory national health plan, but economic recession helps push it aside. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

  • 1986

    President Ronald Reagan signs COBRA, a requirement that employers let former workers stay on the company health plan for 18 months after leaving a job, with workers bearing the cost. (MIKE SARGENT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1988

    Congress expands Medicare by adding a prescription drug benefit and catastrophic care coverage. It doesn't last long. Barraged by protests from older Americans upset about paying a tax to finance the additional coverage, Congress repeals the law the next year. (TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1993

    President Bill Clinton puts first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in charge of developing what becomes a 1,300-page plan for universal coverage. It requires businesses to cover their workers and mandates that everyone have health insurance. The plan meets Republican opposition, divides Democrats and comes under a firestorm of lobbying from businesses and the health care industry. It dies in the Senate. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1997

    Clinton signs bipartisan legislation creating a state-federal program to provide coverage for millions of children in families of modest means whose incomes are too high to qualify for Medicaid. (JAMAL A. WILSON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 2003

    President George W. Bush persuades Congress to add prescription drug coverage to Medicare in a major expansion of the program for older people. (STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 2008

    Hillary Rodham Clinton promotes a sweeping health care plan in her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. She loses to Obama, who has a less comprehensive plan. (PAUL RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 2009

    President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress spend an intense year ironing out legislation to require most companies to cover their workers; mandate that everyone have coverage or pay a fine; require insurance companies to accept all comers, regardless of any pre-existing conditions; and assist people who can't afford insurance. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

  • 2010

    With no Republican support, Congress passes the measure, designed to extend health care coverage to more than 30 million uninsured people. Republican opponents scorned the law as "Obamacare." (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

  • 2012

    On a campaign tour in the Midwest, Obama himself embraces the term "Obamacare" and says the law shows "I do care." (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)