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Health Protection Branch Scandal

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Senator Noel Kinsella initiated public hearings in Ottawa on December 7, 1999, to ascertain if the Health Protection Branch (HPB) is guilty of "contempt of Parliament

Senator Noel Kinsella initiated public hearings in Ottawa on December 7, 1999, to ascertain if the Health Protection Branch (HPB) is guilty of "contempt of Parliament." In a democracy, such as ours struggles to be, that means "contempt of the Canadian people" and may carry a jail term. The investigation focuses on a reprimand and temporary job suspension meted out in 1999 to drug evaluator Dr Shiv Chopra. Thanks to Drs S. Chopra, M. Haydon and their colleagues, Canada's milk and beef contain no bovine growth hormone (rBGH).

The origins of this are in the entanglement of two public scandals: (1) racism in the federal civil service and (2) the mishandling of a public health hazard of global importance.

In the audience was also Dr Chopra's wife, Nirmala Chopra, herself a scientist, who was removed from the HPB in the late 1980s because she insisted on the mandated human safety studies for silicon breast implants, rather than rubber-stamp US corporate demand for quick approval. Her fears became reality: immense profits were made at the expense of human suffering caused by the implants' disruptive effect on the human immune system.

A Strange State

About 10 years ago, Dr Chopra began to wonder why he, one of the most highly qualified scientists at Health Canada, had not received a single promotion in 20 years of service. At about that same time, Monsanto brazenly attempted to bypass Canadian regulations by directly applying for a sales permit of rBGH. Dr Chopra insisted on the legally required safety evaluation first and began to ask those routine questions Monsanto was determined to avoid.

Over a decade often by chance information surfaced that rBGH could trigger cancer and leukemia, cause birth defects and disrupt human immune and hormonal functions (an early version caused men to grow breasts).

Official pressure to approve rBGH increased steadily: $50 million (US) in projected annual sales was at stake. But access to the required scientific information continued to be denied. Frustrated, Drs Chopra and Haydon went public on June 11,1998, on Canada AM. On September 30,1999, the whole staff at the Food Directorate directly approached Health Minister Allan Rock. They wrote: "Trade globalization and advancements in bio-technology pose an increased threat to consumer safety...we recommend that the new Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which also protects food safety, be amended so that human health takes precedence over the concerns of manufacturers. Prevention is much less expensive than remedial action."

Meanwhile, Dr Chopra learned why even the most routine promotion had been denied him for almost 30 years. An internal departmental memo revealed that his superiors felt his "cultural background" prevented him from "doing business in the North American Way." Indeed! He was also accused of lacking "communication and negotiation skills," especially with "stakeholders, such as industry."

For Dr Chopra, the only relevant stakeholder is the public. Promoting Dr Chopra would have meant having an incorruptible scientist influence government and business policy. In 1997 the Human Rights Tribunal found systemic racism in Health Canada to be pervasive; not a single person of a visible minority (all scientists) had reached executive levels. The tribunal ordered change.

Serious Business

In 1994, Dr Margaret Haydon's office was burglarized. All key information on rBGH's adverse effects, including Monsanto's bribery efforts of Health Canada officials, was stolen. This caused the Senate to initiate its first round of inquiries, asking Drs Haydon and Chopra to testify. HPB officials threatened to "send you to a place never heard of before" if they testified before the Senate.

Finally, unable to defy the Senate, HPB officials blanked out all relevant scientific information in Dr Chopra's negative rBGH report and ordered him to testify from only this blanked out version of his own report. When Dr Chopra was sworn in at the Senate, he asked, "Which oath takes precedence the one I just made to God or the one I made as an employee of the ministry?" Senator Eugene Whelan told him to "go with God" and the whole rotten story finally saw the light of day.

Shortly after Dr Chopra's final testimony in May 1999, his superiors reprimanded him and suspended him from work for five days without pay on a flimsy pretext, prompting Senator Kinsella to dig deeper. Legal opinion from the Privy Council indicates that the threats, intimidation, reprimands, job-suspension, and tampering with the official BGH report may constitute "contempt of Parliament."

Senator Kinsella has also introduced Private Member's Bill S-13 "An Act to assist in the prevention of wrongdoing in the Public Service by establishing a framework for education on ethical practices in the workplace, for dealing with allegations of wrongdoing, and for protecting whistleblowers."

It had first reading in Parliament on December 2, 1999 and second reading on December 13,1999.

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