CBC: The Professional Institute of the Public Service called it a sad day for federal employees worried about the safety of Canadians. This summer, the labour relations board ruled against two out of three Health Canada scientists who lost their jobs in a long battle over whistle blowing.
Doctors Shiv Chopra, Margaret Haydon and Gerard Lambert went public with their concerns that bovine growth hormones might be a risk to human health. In the end, the hormone was never approved for use in Canada.
As well, Shiv Chopra and Margaret Haydon warned that Canada's measures to prevent mad cow disease were inadequate. Health Canada called their actions insubordinate and fired them in 2004. After a lengthy appeal, Gerard Lambert got his job back. The other two scientists are appealing.
This week, however, all three will be awarded the 2011 Integrity Award by the advocacy group Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. As part of our series on game changers, I'm joined by Doctors Shiv Chopra and Margaret Haydon, for their efforts to protect Canadians despite the risk to their livelihoods. They are in Ottawa. Good morning.
DOCTOR SHIV CHOPRA (Former Health Canada Scientist): Good morning.
DOCTOR MARGARET HAYDON (Former Health Canada Scientist): Good morning Anna Maria.
CBC: This ordeal has been going on for close to fifteen years. Shiv Chopra, can you take us back to the moment when the bovine growth hormone file landed on your desk?
CHOPRA: Well, actually, I worked at Health Canada for thirty-five years. I go back to the old vaccine days. That's what my job used to be. Originally antibiotics and vaccines for people--rubella, this, that--they all went through my hands. In 1988, I changed my job to go and work in the Bureau of Veterinary Drugs doing more or less the same thing except these are drugs that are given to food producing animals.
And my job was to look at the human safety of whatever was given to animals because the law says anything that gets into the human body directly or indirectly must be proven to be safe and effective by the company to the satisfaction of the Ministry of Health. That's the law.
If the company doesn't prove as required in the law, it doesn't get approval. If it lies, it goes to jail. If somebody in the government lies and falsely signs off, then that person can go to jail because the Food and Drugs Act is attached to the Criminal Code of Canada. So 1988 is when I received a submission from Eli Lilly for bovine growth hormone genetically modified.
CBC: Can you explain what that hormone does?
CHOPRA: What--this is a natural hormone that the cow has. Every other mammal also has their own growth hormone. It's produced in the brain. And it's levels increase and decrease according to the body's needs. But what happens is lactating animals produce more, pregnant animals produce more and the growth period, little infants or calves produce more. And then it's levels come down to just to maintain the wear and tear of the body.
What these companies did was to take the same hormone and genetically modify it with the purpose to produce more milk from the same cow. And that was the idea they wanted to sell. But they had done no research, either Monsanto or Eli Lilly or any of the company. But the pressure was that because it's the cow also produces it, so therefore we don't need to look at it.
CBC: So no research on what it does to the cow or no research on what it might do to humans when they consume the product of the cow?
CHOPRA: I was looking at that when the milk is eventually consumed by people, will that hormone be present in the milk? Will there be something else in the milk? And what will happen to the milk drinking that milk--it could be infants, it could be pregnant women, whatever.
CBC: Margaret Haydon, what do you remember about that time, when you started looking into the bovine growth hormone file? What were you looking for?
HAYDON: Well, I was in the animal efficacy and safety division at that time, looking at those particular aspects of the drugs as they would affect what we call the intended species, which in this case was the lactating dairy cow. And we have to have the research documentation from the companies that demonstrate that their particular drug is safe and also effective for the purposes for which they want to have them put on the Canadian market.
And so when I was looking at the studies from these companies, there were quite a number of deficiencies and of course I would ask questions. And I didn't always get answers back. And it was a long, drawn out process. There were a lot of things that were happening that I questioned, for which I did not get information back.
CBC: Like what?
HAYDON: For instance, what would happen to some of the cows that disappeared from the studies. Because what I wanted to see what would happen if the drug was administered to cows for what we call each lactation, each time the cow has a newborn calf or a baby, then I wanted to see what would happen through three consecutive lactations. The first lactation in a heifer--this is a very young cow--is quite a bit different than the lactation of an older cow. And so I wanted to see if everything was normal with respect to all aspects of these animals, as far as their health went. And that was not the case.
CBC: So you were both looking for their research data from the companies that had created these drugs.
HAYDON: That's correct.
CBC: And did you get anything?
HAYDON: You could say we got volumes of information but not always what we were looking for. The answers weren't always provided and there were animals that would disappear from a study. The company would say they had provided three consecutive lactations but not all the animals in, for example, the second lactation, were the same ones from the first lactation. Something had happened to them.
And of course, as we watched the situation, we found out that there were many problems. For example, reproductive. Some of these cows were not even having reproductive cycles, so they could not even become pregnant within that lactation. And there were also problems with joints and legs, increased rates of mastitis, birth defects in some of the calves that were produced, multiple births.
CBC: Shiv Chopra, what were the supervisors telling you when you started telling them you had doubts about the hormone safety and didn't want to approve it?
HAYDON: They said it's--the US has passed it and therefore without even asking for anything, we should pass it. And my position was, I'm not going to pass anything unless I see it because I'm working for Canadian government. If you don't need to, then you don't need me, you don't need Canadian Department of Health. So therefore, I'm going to do what my job specification requires.
What happened was, the data actually had been produced by Monsanto. It was sitting, hidden under our noses in the file of a file manager and the whole thing was made confidential all these years. And it was sitting there. And when I forced the issue, then the director general appointed me and Doctor Lambert with me and two other scientists to go look into the files and we discovered that in fact all the questions that I had asked were actually positive and the studies done.
So there was effect in the pancreas, there was effect in the testies, there was effect in the thyroid. We don't know what happened in the ovaries because these were all male. So once I got that, it exploded.
CBC: Margaret Haydon, what were your supervisors telling you when you were raising doubts?
HAYDON: Well, we'll put it this way--they weren't really direct in telling me that I really should approve it but the company Monsanto came in with two representatives one day and offered one to two million dollars at a meeting that I was in attendance at for this particular drug to be approved for marketing in Canada without met asking any further questions and without them having to provide any further data.
CBC: What are you saying?
HAYDON: Well, as my supervisor at that time said publicly, yes it was a bribe.
CBC: This was what year?
HAYDON: That was about 1998, I believe.
CBC: Okay. So we're looking at a--already like a decade is going by with the two of you working on all of this. Shiv Chopra, when did you realize it could get really ugly?
CHOPRA: In 1997, I was for four months, I was promoted to be acting chief over Margaret Haydon's division. That's when the two of us came together. And now we were being pressured to pass other hormones. Hormones given to beef, hormones given to pigs. And these were hormones that were banned in the European Union.
CBC: Okay can I interrupt? So you were working independently of each other and coming to these conclusions until that point?
CHOPRA: Yes, we were in two different divisions.
CBC: Okay. You weren't really then exchanging notes until that point?
CHOPRA: No. I was in the human safety division.
CBC: Okay. So you say there was pressure to approve growth hormones in a number of animals. Where was it coming from?
CHOPRA: Well, our sense was that the companies cannot bring pressure on us directly because they didn't. They couldn't. But our bosses, all the way to the top, were saying pass it, this drug has been sitting here for so long. And the others don't talk about it. You can't talk about it in the media, you can't talk about it to anyone else and we weren't talking about it to the media but the point was, where do we go? This information is in our hands and the damage is going to happen to the public.
CBC: You make the point that your bosses were pressuring you. Margaret Haydon, did your bosses have scientific backgrounds?
HAYDON: At that time, they were veterinarians, yes. Things have changed since then, of course.
CBC: And the pressure was coming from inside your department but you believe it was also coming from outside your department. How far did the pressure go on the government's side?
HAYDON: Well, I believe it was right to the Privy Council Office. And just by luck, at the time that we were to appear before the Senate hearing, an email had been actually accidentally sent to us indicating that there had been discussion in the, I'm not sure if it was the Privy Council or the Prime Minister's Office, and they actually had people that met with us to try to stop us from speaking before the Senate hearings. And we were probably not supposed to have seen this. So this was kind of more confirmation that the gag orders were coming from on high and the pressure from there.
CBC: So the two of you, if I understand this, you--well, I guess the three of you were making the point that you didn't want to pass this. And it ends up before a Senate committee. Is that right, Shiv Chopra?
CHOPRA: Yes. That's where all the proof came out, Anna Maria, because the Senate asked us elaborate questions. And all the Senate Committee on Agriculture asked us about not only this drug, they said, if this is happening, are there other drugs involved? And we said, yes. And drug names were listed, the companies' names, everything was there. And ultimately, that's from our point of view, this was evidence. But this is our allegation. As far as the proof is concerned, that we'll come to later because that complaint is still sitting with the public service Integrity Commission now.
CBC: So you appeared before a Senate committee. You had not gone public until this point.
CHOPRA: When we filed our complaint that our grievances are not being heard, this matter was complained by the union to the Public Service Staff Relations Board and the media then came out. Margaret Haydon and I went on Canada AM and then that's when it came out in the media. So they were asking that inside there are grievances, bring them before the Senate. That's how we then were ultimately brought before the Senate as witnesses.
CBC: The two of you both knew you were blowing the whistle. How hard was that?
CHOPRA: It was very, very hard, not just from a personal point. Day to day, it became so difficult for us at that time--it will get worse later--but at that time, say the Senate committee has invited us to appear. And if we go, we are in trouble. If we don't go, we are in trouble. And inside, the department is telling us that we cannot speak and then all of a sudden, three officials from the Privy Council came to advise us how to speak before the Senate and because media will be present and so on.
And so my question to these three officials from the Privy Council was that who are you people? Why aren't my bosses telling me this? And they couldn't answer this question. They were coming here--coming there to advise what will happen to our jobs and how we should speak and when I eventually, you know, guarantees were given by the minister as well as the deputy minister, that nothing would happen to us. So what am I supposed to do, just an ordinary, one public servant put in this situation, holding the truth--how am I supposed to tell the truth?
CBC: Margaret Haydon, what about you?
HAYDON: Well, it was a very difficult time to decide what was going to happen to us. And we knew that the information had to come out and eventually that's what happened but yes, it was a very difficult time and there were a lot of discussions with our union on this matter.
CBC: That hormone that started the fight has never been approved in this country. Have you been vindicated?
CHOPRA: Yes, from--actually, more than vindicated. After what happened in Canada, the European Union was still waiting and the European Union actually banned the bovine growth hormone throughout the European Union. So that was more than vindication. Canada did not ban it. Canada did not approve it, so there's a technical difference but an important technical difference. But the European parliament actually banned it.
CBC: Well, I guess what I'm asking is that you both went to the wall on this and in the grand scheme of things, the original won--Canada did not approve it and yet you don't have jobs. I don't get that.
CHOPRA: Well, you know, that's part of the job. We just simply were doing our jobs. Yes, we've been fired but we have no regrets that we've been fired. We're still in court. Even if we never get our job, it doesn't matter because we came to do our job. We continue to do our job.
CBC: Margaret Haydon, what do you think the government's end game has been in all of this?
HAYDON: I would say that they used us as examples, probably escape goats to say to the rest of the public servants that if you don't toe the line and keep quiet, this is what will happen to you. I think that's their game. Our perspective on this is that we received favourable decision in 2000 on our court case. That if we saw wrongdoing that affected the health and safety of the public, that if we went through all the levels of the hierarchy in government right to the top and they did not correct the issues, then it was our duty and responsibility to go public. I guess we've progressed since that time and we were fired.
CBC: You have both seen so many changes in the last few decades as far as the intersection of corporations, science, government. What do you think needs to be done to ensure public safety is paramount within the approval process?
CHOPRA: Apply the law as stated. After all, the Food and Drugs Act is passed on behalf of the public of Canada.
CBC: So what can be done to ensure that public safety is paramount?
CHOPRA: Well, you know, at this point, I think this is a world phenomenon that's happening. People everywhere in the world are getting frustrated because of corporate power. And all this movement going on in various ways in different countries and ours is happening right now. Go occupy this, occupy that. From our point of view, from what we have seen in science in our jobs, we're saying to the corporations, leave my body alone. De-occupy it. You are nobody. You are a nameless person and you are making money but you are affecting my children, my community, my country--everything. Leave it. Quit.
CBC: Well, you know, I'm a bit confused because this happened to you guys under the Chretien Liberals. Stephen Harper's Conservatives actually campaigned on whistle blower legislation to protect whistle blowers in Canada and yet--like, you're supposed to be protected by now. What happened?
CHOPRA: It's the opposite of what was supposed to happen. We filed a complaint that was a Public Service Integrity Office and that complaint was dismissed without due investigation. Then, we took it to the federal court. The federal court ruled against the Public Service Integrity Office and that complaint now has been sitting still with the Public Service Integrity Commission that the Harper government has appointed with their legislation. So therefore, what is wrong in this country if you cannot even get due investigation ordered by a federal court, how are you supposed--how is the public supposed to react? How are the complainants supposed to react to that? That is the situation that we are in now.
CBC: Well, and what about the legislation?
HAYDON: Well, I don't believe that the legislation will do anything to protect public servants and if somebody asked me today if they should blow the whistle or to speak out publicly, I could not advise them to do that because there would be absolutely no protection under this new legislation.
CBC: Why not?
HAYDON: At the time that it was being developed, one of the MPs was involved with our union and he made sure that every loophole and every aspect that we pointed out that needed improvement to protect public servants, they made sure that they did completely the opposite.
CBC: So they created whistle blower legislation that actually hurts the whistle blower?
CHOPRA: Yes. If you now complain like we did, you will be advised to go to the Public Service Integrity Commission.
CBC: The MP, Margaret, a Conservative MP?
CBC: But they were supposed to bring in the better law?
HAYDON: Well, that's what they promised but they didn't.
CBC: So--but you two did go public, along with Doctor Lambert, and you say that you wouldn't advise anyone else to do it and yet you did it because you thought it matter to the safety of Canadians. Would you change what you've done, Shiv Chopra?
CHOPRA: No I wouldn't because we went under the advisement of a rule that the Supreme Court of Canada had set the obligations of public servants. So in other words, if you see something wrong in your job which is against the public interest, does damage, especially to the health and safety of people, then it is your obligation to go public after you've told your superiors that this is what's happening. If there's wrongdoing in your own vicinity, in your own job, then you are supposed to inform your bosses and if they don't do what is required, publicly and for the good of people, then it becomes your obligation to blow the whistle.
CBC: Margaret Haydon, would you go public again?
HAYDON: Yes I would.
CBC: Despite all you've been through?
CBC: Thank you both for talking to me.
CHOPRA: Thank you.
HAYDON: Thank you very much.
CBC: Shiv Chopra and Margaret Haydon were fired from Health Canada for insubordination after raising concerns about bovine growth hormones. In August, the Public Service Relations board dismissed their attempt to get their jobs back. Thursday, they'll receive the Integrity Award from the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and in the interest of transparency, I sit on the board of the CJFE and voted with board members to honour Doctors Chopra, Haydon and Lambert.