Fired scientists spoke out on drug approvals

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The three scientists in the department's veterinary drugsdirectorate were on stress leave at the time of the firings.

The recent decision to fire three Health Canada veterinaryscientists working in the government office that tests new drugs used onanimals raised for food was made at the highest levels of the Canadianbureaucracy with the co-operation of the food and pharmaceutical industries.

That blunt statement comes from Michael McBane, co-ordinator of theOttawa-based Canadian Health Coalition, which represents groups of seniors, farmers, women, labour unions and healthcare professionals.

“The animal drug industry basically worked really hard with seniormanagement in Health Canada and with the Privy Council office (which advisessenior government leaders and helps set departments' policies), to have thescientists removed,” McBane said in an interview.

Adding to the controversy was the timing of the firings of Shiv Chopra,Margaret Haydon and Gerard Lambert — July 14, just two weeks after the federalelection and before a new group of ministers overseeing all departments,including Health Canada, were sworn in.

At the time the three scientists in the department's veterinary drugsdirectorate were on stress leave after alleging harassment by departmentalofficials.

Health Canada spokesperson Ryan Baker declined to comment on the suggestionthat officials and corporate powers colluded to orchestrate the firings, andcalled the dismissals “a personal matter.”

But Chopra said his letter of termination cited “disobedience” as thereason for the action.

“Given your previous disciplinary record and your continued unwillingness toaccept responsibility for work assigned to you, I have determined that thebond of trust that is essential to productive employer employee relationshiphas been irreparably breached,” Deputy Health Minister Ian Green wrote inthe letter, reported by Canadian Press.

Steve Hindle, the president of the labour union that represents thescientists, says Health Canada “just reached the end of its rope” afteryears of reprimanding and suspending the scientists for their publicopposition to the approval of specific veterinary drugs.

For example, resistance from Chopra, Haydon and Lambert towards a bovinegrowth hormone developed by agri-business giant Monsanto ultimately led to aSenate inquiry in the 1990s and a decision to not approve the drug inCanada.

Also, before the May 2003 discovery of mad cow disease in a cattle herd inwestern Alberta, which led the United States andJapan to ban Canadian beef, Chopra and Haydon had warned that too little wasbeing done by the food industry and its regulators in the Canadian FoodInspection Agency to prevent remains of dead cattle being used as feed forother cows.

The Indian-born Chopra, who has successfully launched anti-discriminationcases against Health Canada for failing to promote employees of non-Europeanorigin, has no explanation for the timing of the firings, but says the lossin income is creating “new stress” for the researchers and their families.Because they were dismissed from their jobs, they are not eligible forseverance payments, he notes.

Hindle's Professional Institute of the Public Service says it will appealthe firings before the Public Service Staff Relations Board, an independenttribunal that adjudicates disputes between the federal government and itsemployees, if Health Canada fails to reinstate them.

Although Chopra applauds the union's support, he says the grievance appealprocess will only deal with the technical and legal aspects of thedepartment's action.

Left out, he adds, will be the substance of the issue: the ability of thepowerful food and pharmaceutical lobbies to pressure Ottawa to bypassscientific concerns about the introduction of suspected cancer-causinghormones and the excessive use of antibiotics in animals; the latter hasbeen singled out for the declining effectiveness of antibiotics on humanbeings.

“The pharmaceutical companies openly for years kept on going to the PrivyCouncil (and saying) that there are problems within veterinary drugs atHealth Canada; they have backlogs of drugs that are not being passed. Whenwe ask (the drug companies) for data, they don't produce any,” Chopra adds.

But Jean Szkotnicki, president of the Canadian Animal Health Institute, theveterinary drugs industry association, denies her organization played a rolein the firings. In fact, her industry benefits from a “robust” review ofanimal drugs, she said.

At the same time, added Szkotnicki, Canada is losing potential research anddevelopment investment dollars from food and pharmaceutical companiesbecause of the slow pace of testing of veterinary drugs at Health Canada.The same drugs have been endorsed by officials in other countries aftergoing through “a similar type risk assessment and risk managementprogram,” she added.

“We are often one of the last countries in the world to approve a product,”according to Szkotnicki.

Chopra counters that the animal drug industry has not produced any newproducts for many years, beyond “spreading and maintaining” the same typesof hormones and antibiotics “of questionable safety” in the Canadian meatindustry.

McBane adds that the European Union (EU) continues to ban imports ofCanadian beef because of its hormone content.

The issue is the right of government scientists to do their job, he adds.

“At the end of the day, these scientists were performing their statutoryduty under the law, in this case the Food and Drugs Act. And their seniormanagers, the deputy minister, the associate deputy minister and thedirector general were basically telling them to operate outside of the ruleof law, to ignore the laws of Canada, and to expose Canadians to knownhealth risks.”

Chopra says he expects the Senate to investigate the firings.

In 1998 the standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry promisedHealth Canada scientists that in exchange for testimony on the safety ofCanada's food, their jobs would not be jeopardized. “They told us, 'anytime,if anything happens to you, come to us',” recalls Chopra.

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