OTTAWA - Declaring a need for more rigorous protections for Canadian consumers, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced an overhaul of Canada's antiquated product-safety laws.

The bill tabled in Parliament on Tuesday is heavily modelled on the so-called Food and Consumer Safety Action Plan released by the Conservative government last December.

It includes harsher penalties for firms that sell dangerous goods and would allow the health minister to invoke mandatory product recalls when companies fail to act on their own.

"We've all seen the stories in the news about food contaminated with bacteria, medicines containing undisclosed drugs, or children's products manufactured with lead or other hazardous substances," Harper told a news conference.

"Canadians rightly expect their national government to police the safety of consumer products."

But while he said consumer products are generally safe, the system could be "significantly better."

The bill comes after high-profile recalls last year of tainted pet food, lead-laden children's toys and E. coli in spinach triggered widespread concern about the safety of products Canadians buy.

The bulk of legislation overseeing consumer and health products was drafted decades ago and the Tories promised new measures in last fall's speech from the throne.

The Hazardous Products Act, for example, hasn't been reviewed for almost 40 years, Harper said. The Food and Drugs Act has been "virtually untouched" for 50 years.

As a result, Canada is falling behind other industrialized countries, including some of its major trading partners, the prime minister said.

"We need to set and enforce state-of-the-art safety standards on domestic and imported goods," he said.

Most Canadian manufacturers, importers and sellers are "conscientious corporate citizens who take their responsibilities for consumer safety seriously."

"There are a few, however, which care more about the almighty dollar than the safety of their customers," Harper said. "They cut corners and play fast and loose with safety.

"To these outfits I say: Be warned, you will soon face severe punishment if you wilfully expose Canadians to danger."