Public health whistle-blower Shiv Chopra isn’t done talking about rBGH

Fired former Health Canada scientist is back battling to keep artificial growth hormones out of our milk


Shiv Chopra isn’t done fighting. 

As Canada looks set to open its borders under the not-yet-ratified Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, Chopra is back in action, speaking out across the country to reawaken our vigilance about artificial hormones in our milk.

After a public outcry in the late 1990s, Canada decided against approving genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, to increase dairy cows’ milk production. But Chopra, then a Health Canada scientist, paid a price. 

He and two colleagues were suspended, then fired from their posts in 2004 after they testified before a Senate committee that their own government bosses pressed them to approve the drug, despite questions about its safety. 

Chopra challenged the firing in court. While his case has bounced around over the last 12 years, he has written Corrupt To The Core, Memoirs Of A Health Canada Whistleblower, about his 35-year career as a public health watchdog. Chopra’s still unresolved wrongful dismissal case has outlived three federal governments and is onto its fourth.

Is it new for you to be speaking about rBGH since it was banned in Canada?

We didn’t actually ban rBGH we only didn’t approve it. Health Canada left the back door open. Although rBGH could not be used in Canadian cows, dried milk and milk products containing rBGH come into Canada to this day.

After what happened in Canada, the EU actually banned rBGH. So when you put it in the perspective of trade, that means the U.S. is the only industrialized country in the TPP where rBGH is approved. American milk with rBGH can come into Canada, and then our dairy farmers will say, “Hey, how about us? We want to use it, too.” So the whole thing will come undone.

Is the rBGH hormone itself unsafe?

The issue is not whether rBGH itself is harmful or not, because natural BGH is there in the cow. There is some increase, but it’s the process of giving it and what it does to the cow that becomes a concern.

A second poison is created in the process, and the cow can become sick with some 20 adverse reactions. It may have pus in its milk, and because it gets mastitis, the cow has to be treated with antibiotics, and that causes superbugs that are killing people in hospitals. 

The stand you made 18 years ago had a huge effect on you. How do you feel about what you’ve accomplished?

I don’t consider this to be any accomplishment. It was my job then, it is my job now, whether I’m in the job or not. It is my country, it’s my safety and my children’s safety, so why should corruption at those highest levels be tolerated? 

All of us as citizens in a civilized society, if we see wrongdoing happening, it’s our job to report it. And especially when you’re actually given the job to be a policeman of science, which was my job! If I hadn’t reported it, I should have gone to jail.

Only about 3.25 per cent of fluid milk in Canada may contain rBGH under the TPP, so why is it such a concern?

That’s not the issue. The issue is that even 1 per cent of milk allowed to come in will destroy our dairy industry.

Our farmers [are] already in a desperate situation. Those who are in farming can’t make money. The average age of our farmers is over 60, and they all have to have secondary jobs to survive. Farming is dying out.

What effect has this long court process had on your life?

Well, fortunately my health is good, I’m 82, and I’ll go on functioning as long God permits. So I don’t even think about that.

How about your co-whistle-blowers?

We started out as six, and then two became turncoats and got promotions. Then one [remaining whistle-blower] died, so three of us were left. We three were fired, and then one got reinstated – he got his money and disappeared. So now two of us are still here. I’m laughing, but it’s not easy. I received a gold watch for illustrious service from Prime Minister Paul Martin – while being fired! It’s comedy.

How do you stay positive?

It’s not my nature to get bitter or angry. You can’t deal with things that way. It is for me to only do what I am supposed to do. And then I garden, deal with nature. I have a huge garden, a teaching garden – I bring people, kids, to show them how food can be produced. We don’t have to import it from anywhere. This is the best country in the world, it is a God-blessed country with so much land and so much water and minerals.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


BOVINE FACTS

Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is a genetically engineered version of a hormone naturally produced by a cow’s pituitary gland that causes a dairy cow to produce up to 16 per cent more milk. 

First marketed as Polsilac by Monsanto in 1994.

The health risk to humans is non-existent, according to the American Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization.

Elevated levels of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which has been linked to the development of various cancers, have been found in people who drink milk or eat meat from rBGH-treated cows.

The American Cancer Society says the evidence of human harm from drinking rBGH milk is inconclusive. It calls for more research.

Approved for use The United States, Mexico, Brazil, India, Russia and about 10 other countries allow rBGH in dairy cattle.

Not approved Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, Argentina and the European Union forbid its use.

Effect on injected cows Increased risk of bacterial infections and clinical signs of lameness, reduced fertility.

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