GUARDIAN 12/02/1999 P6
2/12/99 UK: OUSTED SCIENTISTS AND THE DAMNING RESEARCH INTO FOOD SAFETY.
Laurie Flynn, Michael Gillard and Andy Rowell on the tests on rats that
raised serious questions about the effects of genetically modified food on
LAST WEEK in parliament William Hague asked Tony Blair why the Government
was ignoring advice from its environmental advisers to call a three-year
moratorium on the commercial release of genetically modified (GM) crops
until more research is done.
The Prime Minister, wary of mounting public concern, especially in middle
England, replied ebulliently: "It is important that we proceed on the basis
of the scientific evidence. The first stage of meeting public concern is to
debate the information."
Today the Guardian publishes for the first time worrying details of
publicly funded scientific research. The authors, two eminent British
scientists, demand that the Government honours its commitment to
transparency on the issue of biotechnology and initiates an immediate
evaluation of the potential health risks.
They are backed by 20 international scientists, who call on the Government
to release further funding for follow-up research and the clearing of one
of the authors who has been maligned.
The story begins in October 1995 when the Scottish Office commissioned a
research project from the Aberdeen-based Rowett Research Institute into the
effect of GM crops on animal nutrition and the environment. This included,
for the first time, feeding GM potatoes to rats to see if they had any
harmful effects on their guts, bodies, metabolism and health. A former
senior Scottish Office official involved in commissioning the project told
the Guardian there was "little regard" at the time for research into the
human nutritional and environmental consequences of GM foods. The #1.6m
research grant was allocated to redress this imbalance. Dr Arpad Pusztai, a
senior research scientist at the Rowett, beat off 28 other tenders to
coordinate the project. He has always kept an open mind about GM foods and
conditionally supported their release as long as there were rigorous and
The other members of the project were the Dundee-based Scottish Crop
Research Institute (SCRI) and Durham University biology department who grew
the GM potato used in the feeding trials. All three bodies had links with
the biotech industry through the pursuit of commercial research contracts.
There was no reason to believe that the research project would produce the
controversial findings that could threaten the scientific foundations of
the biotech industry they sought to embrace. In December 1996, Dr Pusztai
suddenly became aware of the inadequate level of existing scientific
trials on GM maize when a member of the Government's Advisory Committee on
Novel Food Production (ACNFP) asked him to assess the validity of a
licensing application from one of the industry's leading companies.
He faxed his two-page assessment to the Ministry of Agriculture warning
that tests into nutritional performance, toxicology or allergenicity were
insufficient and inadequate.
In his final paragraph he asked for "proper experiment" with the GM plants
and added: "Do not leave it to chance." There was no legal requirement for
further tests to be carried out and approval for licensing was granted.
His own project, now a year old, was also presenting difficulties. Rows had
broken out after preliminary findings emerged from Dr Pusztai's team and
the SCRI and Durham University's biology department showed growing
discomfort sources told the Guardian about the validity of some of his
methodology and the
implication of the results.
A Scottish Office immunologist was called in. She approved the methodology
by Dr Pusztai's team. The preliminary results of Dr Pusztai's work had
begun to show unexpected and worrying changes in the size and weight of
the rats' bodily organs. The team found liver and heart sizes were
decreasing worse still, the brain was getting smaller. There were also
indications of a weakening of the immune system.
With so many unanswered questions, far more public money would be needed,
Dr Pusztai concluded. But the Guardian understands that the Scottish Office
and the Rowett Institute declined his funding requests. For Dr Pusztai,
the funding crisis and the prospect of his unexpected results not being
published led him to reconsider his attitude to the media. In January last
year he appeared, with the Rowett Institute's permission, on BBC2's
Newsnight and voiced his concerns in measured terms about weakening of the
immune system in the rats fed GM potatoes. In April, Granada TV's World in
Action approached Dr Pusztai and again with the institute's consent he
gave an interview which was broadcast in the documentary that August.
Dr Pusztai told ITV viewers that he would not eat GM food. He found it
"very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs. We have to
find [them] in the laboratory," he insisted. Two days later Dr Pusztai
was summarily suspended and forced to retire by the Rowett Institute's
director, Professor Philip James, who had personally cleared the interview
with Granada and put his name to official press releases supporting the
Dr Pusztai was denied access to his research data and an internal
investigation by the Rowett's senior management was launched after
unsourced allegations of scientific fraud against Dr Pusztai appeared in a
scientific journal. Six months later, the truth about what happened in
those two days is still shrouded in mystery. The Pusztai camp claim there
was industry and political pressure on the institute to silence him but a
press release at he time stated that Dr Pusztai had presented provisional
data in public without peer review.
This week the institute director declined to discuss the matter or to be
interviewed by the Guardian. The deputy director, David Blair, also refused
all requests for further information.
But the institute did complete an audit report in August last year with the
input of two outside scientists. The report concluded that the research
data did not link GM potatoes to any health risks. Dr Pusztai wrote his
reply once he was allowed access to his data. He strongly re-confirmed his
In another twist, Professor James gave evidence to the House of Lords
Committee on European regulation of GM in agriculture on the same day last
October that his audit report was published.
Asked about events at the institute, Professor James told the Lords "there
is no question of any malpractice [by Dr Pusztai]." He apologised for the
confusion, saying: "Dr Pusztai has come out of this audit review
exonerated." As for Dr Pusztai's conclusions, they remained unproven, said
the Rowett report. Dr Pusztai was not called to the committee hearing.
But the Guardian understands that a Liberal Democrat MP, Archy Kirkwood,
provided the Lords with a copy of the scientist's alternative report.
By October, Dr Stanley Ewen, a pathologist at Aberdeen University Medical
School, working on Dr Pusztai's team, was finalising his measurements on
stomach sections of rats used in Dr Pusztai's experiments. Dr Ewen
believed he had established that something in the GM potato had caused
elongation of a section of the stomach. In addition, after 10 days'
feeding, a section of the stomach wall had increased dramatically. The
Guardian has seen evidence of this and also learned that Dr Ewen did not
expect these results. According to a source close to the research, the
differences caused Dr Ewen concern.
As a result of the preliminary findings, Dr Ewen and Dr Pusztai are
strongly in favour of more research to further test their controversial
results and their implications for human beings. The scientists are
anxious not to repeat the mistakes of the BSE scandal.
They are asking for further funding to examine these problems in a more
benign atmosphere away from the secrecy, intrigue and recriminations of the
past six months.
The treatment of Dr Pusztai and the virtual disbandment of his research
team led the international group of 20 scientists to go public. Two of the
signatories have worked for the institute. Both were concerned about the
attack on scientific freedom.
Dr Kenneth Lough, aged 71, who was the principal science officer at the
Rowett Institute for 31 years until he retired 12 years ago, attacked the
"draconian position" taken by the institute in suspending Dr Pusztai
without the proper " free exchange" of data.
The absence of this free exchange of publicly funded data would be useful
to the GM industry which is unable to convince the British public about the
quality of their product. The 20 scientists want to know why the changes in
organ size and weight are taking place whether the problem was the new
gene or the method of transplanting.
Alternatively, was it the "virus promoter" the "light switch" which GM
companies are using to turn on the genes? Increasingly, the Pusztai team
began to focus on the promoter, the so-called cauliflower mosaic virus.
Preliminary analysis redoubled their anxieties and with it the possible
implications for the GM industry. This was the same virus that had already
been used in the modified tomato paste, soya oils and maize that the
Government and the European Union had approved for use in industrial and
convenience foods and which were making their way into hundreds of
products on supermarket shelves.
Dr Pusztai's preliminary research also questions the safety testing for the
products the biotech industry is bringing to the supermarket shelves, in
some cases unlabelled. None of the food that has been approved for
consumption in the UK has undergone long-term feeding trials. "One key
problem that keeps coming back time and again is that regulation of food
is nothing like as strict as the regulation for drugs," Professor Jonathan
Rhodes, of Liverpool University, told the Guardian. "And when you start
tinkering around with the genetic structure of food you have to move
towards thinking of them as pharmaceuticals."
Vyvyan Howard, also of Liverpool University, added: "We are saying that we
need a moratorium." The vast majority of the British support this call,
although Tony Blair's government stands by the biotech industry, recently
putting another #13m into the DTI's Biotechnology means Business
programme. A Mori poll last June showed 77% of respondents in favour of a
moratorium; 61% did not wish to eat GM food.
A clear sign of the importance attached to the unpublished research was
given last week in private by the Nick Tomlinson, secretary to the Advisory
Committee on Novel Foods. In a letter to Dr Ewen on February 4, he stated:
"If there are lessons to be learned, it is vital that these are taken on
board as soon as possible." He asked for Dr Ewen's research as "a matter
of urgency". At the weekend, British negotiators will fly to Colombia to
negotiate the Biosafety Protocol in an attempt to set up international
regulations governing GM organisms.
The Government is being criticised by many countries pushing for rigorous
safety assessments in the protocol. Tewolde Egziabher, representing the
African nations argues that "the position of the UK delegation is shaped
by corporate interest, probably reinforced by transatlantic pressure."
Michael Meacher, the Environment Minister, argues: "Our aim is to establish
a predictable, science-based and transparent regime which establishes
proportionate to the risks."
Will these new findings force Tony Blair to change Britain's negotiating
position to adopt a stance based on the precautionary principle? Mr Blair's
position on GM organisms is now at odds with public opinion. Labour MP
Alan Simpson said: "What on earth would it take to put the people's
government at such a remove from the people that they have a delegation
flying out to Colombia on Sunday that could end up signing the country to
an agreement that prevents interventions to protect human health? "For a
government that has been meticulous in courting middle income, middle
England, there has to be a bigger explanation why they want to side with an
industry increasingly heading towards zero public tolerance. "I think as
the Government we have an obligation to identify who frustrated this
research? If Dr Pusztai is right, this could be BSE mark two. "What is at
stake here is the whole scrutiny process affecting human and environmental
GUARDIAN 12/02/1999 P6
2/12/99 UK: TOP RESEARCHERS BACK SUSPENDED LAB WHISTLEBLOWER. SCIENTISTS:
speaking out against 'serious flaws in the conclusions arrived
at'TWENTY-TWO prominent scientists have signed a public statement in
support of suspended food scientist Dr Arpad Pusztai, who lost his job
last year for warning the British public of possible risks associated with
the way bio-technology companies were introducing genetically modifed food
without long-term feeding trials.
The scientists from 13 countries state that their independent examination
of all the published data shows that Dr Pusztai was right to be concerned
and should never have been attacked or suspended.
Dr Malcolm Fuller, honorary research fellow of the Rowett Institute,
Scotland: "To my mind the most important data you have that is largely
overlooked by the audit report relates to organ weights"
Dr Kenneth Lough, FRSE, former principal scientific officer Rowett
Institute 1956-87: "In my view the evidence presented in the audit report
must be considered as unsafe and is without justification for use against
the scientific reputation of Dr Pusztai".
"The institute is at risk in sending out signals to scientists working in
(this) field of research that any sign of apparent default will be treated
with the utmost severity. The awareness will of course act as a strong
deterrent to those who wish to conduct research in this vitally important
Professor Ronald Finn, University of Liverpool: "At the very least they
should have concluded t hat there may be an immunological effect. The full
data should now be discussed". Professor Jonathan Rhodes, University of
Liverpool: "The conclusions drawn [by the audit report] from the facts are
biased to an extent that in my opinion would not be deemed acceptable if
subjected to peer review as for a scientific journal."
Professor Ian Pryme, Bergen University, Norway, and honorary research
fellow Rowett Institute: "There are serious flaws in the conclusions which
the auditing committee has arrived at. There can be little doubt that in
light of the available data further detailed experimentation is certainly
warranted in order to provide more thorough documentation concerning the
possible detrimental effects of these diets."
Professor Joe Cummins, Emeritus Professor of Genetics, University of
Western Ontario, Canada: "A great injustice appears to have been committed
by a respected research institute. That institute continues to look inward
to cover up its mistakes."
Professor B.C. Goodwin, Schumacher College, Devon: "I regret also that
there has been no attempt on the part of the Rowett ... to re-establish Dr
Pusztai's high scientific credentials with the media after the damage done
to him by the Director in reporting publically that Dr Pusztai was
responsible for producing confusion and muddle about the results and
implications of his research, a charge later withdrawn. This is the most
serious damage that any scientist can suffer and it requires
Dr Vyvyan Howard, foetal and infant toxico-pathologist, Univeristy of
Liverpool: "An objective review of the data from these experiments leads to
the conclusion that the consumption of GNA-GM potatoes [modified with a
snowdrop lectin] in rats has led to significant differences in organ
weight and lymphocyte responsiveness. Further work should be undertaken to
elucidate the meaning of these findings.
"A major problem with the [audit] report is that the authors have been
selective with the data they have included, which makes an objective
appraisal of their conclusions impossible from solely reading the audit
report. I have the impression it was hastily compiled and systematically
biased towards brushing aside your experimental finding."
"It is urgent that the full data from these experiments should be brought
into the public arena and debated. Your findings are of considerable
importance in the current debate on the safety and hazard assessment of
genetically modified foods."
Professor S Pierzynowski, Dept. Animal Physiology, Lund University, Sweden:
"I must stress that there is enough strong evidence that the work of the
audit group was not objective and per se dangerous, not only for Dr
Pusztai but generally for free and objective science." GUARDIAN
Richard Wolfson, PhD
Consumer Right to Know Campaign,
for Mandatory Labelling and Long-term
Testing of all Genetically Engineered Foods,
500 Wilbrod Street
Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N2
tel. 613-565-8517 fax. 613-565-1596
Our website, http://www.natural-law.ca/genetic/geindex.html
contains more information on genetic engineering as well as
previous genetic engineering news items
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