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3-Food: Dr. Pusztai vindicated (4) - The story of suppressing scientific findings

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GUARDIAN 12/02/1999 P6

Laurie Flynn, Michael Gillard and Andy Rowell on the tests on rats that 
raised serious questions about the effects of genetically modified food 
on internal organs.

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 independent trials.

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 used 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 programme. 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 

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 findings. 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 controls 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 health." 

-| Hartmut Meyer
-| Co-ordinator
-| The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
-| Reinhaeuser Landstr. 51
-| D - 37083 Goettingen
-| Germany
-| phone: #49-551-7700027
-| fax  : #49-551-7701672
-| email:

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