Rest in peace to our friend Dr. Shiv Chopra who died this past Sunday at the age of 84 from cancer. To many of us, he was the hero who wasn’t afraid of controversy and blew the whistle about BGH and the safety it posed to Canada’s food system. He is survived by his wife, Nirmala, sons Sandeep and Anil, and five grandchildren.1
Back in 1989, he created a debate about Canada’s veterinary drug approval process after he Margaret Haydon testified before a Senate committee that they were being pressured to approve bovine growth hormone (or BGH- which farmers in the U.S. use to boost milk production in dairy cows). However, thanks in part to the debate he created, BGH was never approved in Canada.
Chopra, a Hindu, was born in India and earned a degree in veterinary science. He later moved to Canada to pursue his Ph.D. in microbiology at McGill University. Although he spent some time in England he eventually returned to take a job working for the federal government.
His son Anil says about his father,
“He taught us from an early age to always seek truth in everything. And I mean everything. It wasn’t just science, it was religion, spirituality and philosophy. If he saw injustice, he would speak up about it. He saw it as his duty. He always said he worked for the people of Canada, not for his direct supervisors or the government of the time. He always said civil servants were there to be the defenders of the people. It’s what kept him going.”2
Chopra remained in the spotlight after the BGH controversy. He and his fellow scientists continued to speak out about veterinary drugs and practices, urged the government to consider a total ban on animal feed that contained rendered materials of other animals after a case of mad cow was found in Alberta, and spoke out against the use of the antibiotic Baytril in animals, arguing it could produce antibiotic resistance in humans. Again, Chopra worked for the people and wanted what was best for them.
Their continued voices forced public debate about food safety and whistleblowing as a public service. However, Chopra would go on to lose his job.
While the Federal Court ruled in 2001 that he and the other scientists had the right to “voice their concerns” about BGH, because the public interest overrode loyalty to their employer, Chopra, Haydon and Gérard Lambert were fired for “insubordination” in 2014 (then prime minister Paul Martin would go on to say the firings had nothing to do with whistleblowing- sure). Chopra would spend nearly the rest of his life fighting to be reinstated (Haydon and Lambert were reinstated in 2016).
In 2014, Chopra founded the Canadian Council for Food Safety and Health because he was still concerned about the “’five pillars of food safety — hormones, antibiotics, slaughterhouse byproducts used in animal feed, pesticides and genetically modified organisms.”3 He also had reservations about vaccinations and believed that all drugs should be “stringently tested,” especially when it came to children. His son Anil said his father saw a lot of “data pass his desk” and wanted drugs to be well tested and for there to be an open dialogue about their use.
The executive director of the Canadian Council on Food Safety and Health said that Chopra will be remembered for “speaking truth to power” and for inspiring food safety activism around the world.4
Rest in peace.