While the beef we Canadians get from our own farms is laced with all manner of strange, cancer-causing hormones, Canadian beef exports to Europe are decidedly a cut above.It's no surprise, then, that Health Canada officials quickly got on a plane to European Union headquarters in Brussels last week when news broke that the beef we're exporting to Europe may also be laced with cancer-causing hormones.
Diplomatic wheels have been turning ever since that tantalizing tidbit was revealed in a confidential European Commission report leaked to a public health watchdog in Ottawa.
Health Canada officials making their case to European officials in Brussels hope to repair the damage the document has inflicted on Canada's food inspection reputation and thus maintain access to the huge European market.
But they'll have to do a lot of prodding to dissuade the EU from imposing an outright ban on Canadian beef and other meats, especially with the current mad cow scare gripping France, where the government is pulling beef off supermarket shelves.
The EC report paints a tainted picture of our meat inspection system. It found widespread use of growth hormones, including drugs containing known carcinogens, in our cattle.
The 28-page document also suggests that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) attempted to cover up shortcomings in the system.
When violations of hormone use were discovered by CFIA laboratories, even in their hormone-free cattle program, the EC reports that no follow-up investigations were conducted. At one feedlot visited by the EC, a veterinary medicine only approved for use in cats and dogs was being used in cattle.
Canadian authorities claim there's nothing wrong with the meat supply. Agriculture minister Lyle Vanclief has suggested that the EC report may be part of an attempt by the Europeans to protect struggling EU farmers from Canadian imports.
However, to Michael McBane, a researcher with the Canadian Health Coalition, the EC's findings are nothing short of scandalous.
He says the EC report only proves what public health advocates and even some government scientists have been saying about the food inspection system for a long time: it's beholden to powerful drug multinationals and agri-business interests that are putting the lives of Canadians at risk.
A Senate committee heard last year that higher-ups routinely pressure Health Canada drug evaluators to approve veterinary drugs of questionable safety. Missing files, RCMP investigations -- they're all part of the volatile mix.
"It's very scary," says McBane. "After mad cow disasters, Walkerton, tainted-blood scandals, we're getting government out of the business of protecting the public."
Beef is big business in Canada. More than 3.6 million head of cattle were slaughtered for sale on the open market last year alone. Europe has been one of our largest importers.
The EU, however, has long had concerns about the safety of Canadian beef and other meat imports. Most troubling for the EU has been the routine use of growth hormones. These are used to pump productivity and produce leaner meat, but they've been banned in Europe for more than a decade. Europe banned imports of both Canadian and U.S. beef because of hormone use a few years ago. That decision was later overturned by the World Trade Organization.
But Canada promised to clean up its act and send the EU only hormone-free beef. The prospect of losing access to a target market shocked the government into action.
But the European fact-finding mission sent in September to check on changes promised by Canada found serious problems in our food inspection system.
Among other things, the team found that the use of growth hormones is still widespread. And in situations where hormone residues were detected by Canadian authorities, the EC found that no follow-up investigations had been conducted.
Shockingly, CFIA officials told the fact-finding team that "the CFIA does not have the legal authority to carry out on-farm investigations."
The EC report also gives the impression that efforts were made by the CFIA to cover up serious infractions. Several times -- including one occasion when the team suspected a feedlot owner of using an unauthorized growth hormone -- they were denied access to data. Blank transfer certificates pre-signed by veterinarians, as well as certificates with unauthorized changes, were uncovered by the EC fact-finders on another farm.
Antibiotics banned in the EU, including several that scientists now fear weaken the body's ability to fight infection, were found in use in livestock feed, along with the drug carbadox, which is used to fatten young animals after weening and is a well-known carcinogen. Euroflaxacin, a drug approved only for cats and dogs, was also detected.
In fact, while the EC was carrying out its review, the CFIA was forced to issue a recall of pork (125 animals in all) contaminated by carbadox.
Rather than praising the quick work of the CFIA, though, the EC report says, "The recall was only possible because of the prompt action of a private veterinarian who alerted the authorities to the fact that the pigs had been given the wrong feed."
Brian Evans, Canada's chief veterinary officer of health, is reluctant to discuss the specifics of the EC report when reached in Ottawa. He uses words like "unwarranted," "confusion" and "factual errors" to downplay the EC's findings, and says the EC is already "retracting and repositioning," at least to Canadian government officials, on its report.
"There is some liberty being taken by the auditors in what they saw as differences between the Canadian system and European system."
Still, he says, the CFIA is taking the report's findings "very seriously" and conducting its own investigation. "Where there are potential harmful effects to humans," Evans says, "we will take the appropriate actions."
Evans is quick to point out, too, that there have never been any problems found with Canadian meat exports to Europe. (Perhaps he's forgotten the earlier ban.) "There are a lot of inferences being drawn now, that there have been violations and positive test findings that led them to come to Canada," says Evans. "That is simply not the case."
Diane Kirkpatrick, an executive with Health Canada's bureau of veterinary drugs, adds that Canadians shouldn't be worried about the use of hormones in cattle and other livestock. She says the hormones in question are approved based on "internationally recognized criteria" and are currently in use in other countries, including the U.S.
"It's not like we stand out," Kirkpatrick says.
She doesn't discount the EC's concerns about hormones. "Science never stands still," she says. "Developments are always occurring, and new information comes in. We constantly need to re-examine what's out there.
"But precautionary measures are part of our approach," Kirkpatrick says. "I can assure you that we err on the side of the angels when it comes to public health."
But while health and agriculture officials proudly pump our meat inspection system as the best in the world, there's growing scientific evidence that chemicals used by Canadian farmers and feedlot operators pose cancer and other health risks. Scientists also fear that humans may develop resistance to antibiotics used to ward off disease in animals, compromising our own ability to fight infection.
A study prepared last year by a European Commission scientific committee found that, while the research data is somewhat limited, hormones used in beef and meat products produced tumours in laboratory tests on rats. The study also concluded that hormone use raises "toxicological issues of concern, including to endocrine, developmental, immunological, neurobiological, immunotoxic, genotoxic and carcinogenic effects."
The six different growth hormones reviewed -- estradiol, testosterone, progesterone, zeranol, trenbelone and malengestrol -- are all currently in use in Canada.
Convential wisdom says these hormones exist naturally in the body and are therefore not harmful.
But according to a Health Canada scientist NOW spoke with, while the department says hormones are not harmful, the government has yet to determine what levels are safe. In any event, he says, it's particularly tricky to prescribe a safe dose because hormones exist in minute amounts and act very subtly in the body.
It's especially scary, says McBane, when one considers that the average hamburger contains the meat of perhaps 1,000 different animals. "That they can't set a safe level has to tell you something about (the health hazards posed) by these products. It's very disturbing."
McBane says the coalition has raised concerns about hormone use with the prime minister's office and two ministers of health.
The auditor general raised his own concerns about Canada's meat inspection system in 1999 in relation to the CFIA's handling of a salmonella outbreak in which 800 people were poisoned by tainted luncheon meat.
But, so far, the only official forum that's heard about health concerns over hormones is the Senate agriculture committee.
That committee heard that drug multinationals and agri-business exercise undue influence over the workings of the department when it comes to getting their drugs approved.
Two drug evaluators in the bureau, Shiv Chopra and Margaret Haydon, came forward to testify that public safety is taking a back seat to trade considerations. Scientists, they say, are being pressured to approve drugs of questionable safety.
Says Chopra: "The attitude is, "We take the risk now. If something happens, then we will manage it. In the meantime, we'll make money.'"
In Haydon's case, files she was keeping as part of her review of one chemical giant's application for a bovine growth hormone mysteriously went missing from a locked cabinet in her office. Haydon had been holding back approval of the drug.
"Multinationals," she says, "have very long arms. People like me get in the way."
Health Canada spokesperson Lynn LeSage says an internal probe found "no specific evidence" that Haydon's files "were tampered with."
Ditto for Chopra's claim of managers pressuring scientists, even though numerous complaints continue to be filed through the union representing civil servants. And an outside consultant has been brought in to reorganize the department.
In Brussels, meanwhile, whatever those Health Canada officials who flew in last week have been telling EC officials seems to be having a diplomatic effect. Already, the EC seems to be backtracking.
Deate Gminder, a spokesperson for the EC, says she can't discuss the EC report because it's only a preliminary document that hasn't officially been made public. McBane says he'll push for a public inquiry when the House reconvenes.
"They can gag a few scientists and feed lies to the Canadian people, but increasingly the world is catching on to this corporate takeover of regulation. We're going to lose the market for Canadian food if we don't clean it up." email@example.com this:
Hormones found in beef and beef products and the risks to human health
ESTRADIOL-17 -- The most active of the female hormones, secreted mainly by the ovaries. A "complete carcinogen" associated with increased risk of breast and prostate cancer.
PROGESTERONE A natural-steroid sex hormone linked to implantation of the egg in the uterus and the growth of the embryo and fetus. Has been shown to increase the incidence of tumours in the mammary gland, ovary, uterus and vagina in laboratory animals.
TESTOSTERONE -- The main sex hormone secreted by males. Known to induce urinary tumours in mice and prostate tumours in rats.
ZERANOL -- A natural mycoestrogen produced by various species of fusarium moulds. Carcinogenic to the liver, and there is evidence of renal tumours in lab experiments on hamsters. Male mice exposed in utero to zeranol show testicular abnormalities.
TRENBOLONE -- A synthetic androgen having anabolic activity several-fold greater than that of testosterone. Feeding of high doses to mice produced liver hyperplasia and tumours and a small increase in tumours of the pancreas.
MELENGESTROL -- A progesteron about 30 times as active as progesterone. Pellets implanted in female mice caused slightly increased incidence of mammary tumours.