Dr Arpad Pusztai evoked world wide media attention in August 1998, when he said in British TV that he would not eat genetically engineered food because of the insufficient testing procedures they have undergone.
Pusztai is a world renowned expert on food safety, who worked at UK’s leading food safety research lab, the Rowett institute. His statement obviously threatened to damage the then ongoing multimillion PR campaign of the Biotech industry to create public confidence in GE foods. A few days after his public appearance he was suspended and gagged by the research institute where he worked.
Pointed out weakness in present food regulations
Dr Pusztai’s pointed out that substances in Genetically Engineered (GE) foods that have a slow acting effect would not be detected because present regulations do not require long term safety testing. The regulations prescribe an approval procedure based on the principle of substantial equivalence. In practice this procedure allows very superficially tested foods to be approved. As an illustrative example, he mentioned fresh results from his research on certain pesticidal Lectins (Pusztai is recognized as a world leading expert on Lectins). Pusztai found that rats developed immune system defects and stunted growth after a time period corresponding to 10 years of human life.
Humiliating statements displayed about Pusztai
A few days after his appearance on TV and Radio, the Rowett intstitute suspended Pusztai. It was said that the GE potatoes were not intended to be used as food. It was maintained that the results reported by Dr Pusztai were misleading because he had mixed up the results of different studies. In that context it was pointed out that he was old (68), giving the impression of a senile and confused person. It was also said that the research had not been done on GE potatoes but on a mixture of natural potatoes and Lectin. It was indicated in a humiliating way that the quality of Dr Pusztai’s research was deficient. The formal reason for his suspension was that he had presented the results publicly before they had been reviewed by other scientists (peer review) as required by the Rowett Institute. At the same time as he was suspended, he was disallowed to speak with the media to defend himself (which would have revealed the misleading information from Rowett Institute).
A scientific committe was asked by the Rowett institute to review the study Pustai referred to. It said there were important deficiencies in the study.
Independent scientists confirmed the correctness of Pusztais conclusions
Pusztai then sent the research protocols to 24 independent scientists in different countries. These turned down the conclusions of the review committee and found that his research was of good quality and justified his conclusions. They found that Pusztai had not mixed up any results.
Scientists and physicians (including the undersigned), who had been in touch with Pusztai confirmed that he was perfectly clear-minded with no signs of confusion or memory defects.
“Breathtaking impertinence” by Royal society according to Lancet
Then a second review committe was appointed by the Royal Society in UK. It again concluded that Pusztai’s results were inconclusive yes even flawed.
A world leading scientific journal found the judgement of the Royal Society “a gesture of breathtaking impertinence” (Lancet, Editorial, May 22, p1769).
Pusztai has pointed out a number of obvious deficencies in this review report, see also the interview below and Dr Pusztai’s website, where he explains this in detail.
Harmful GE potatoes would have been approved
Recently Pusztai has also said that the lectin potatoes he had been studying were indeed intended for food although that was denied by the Rowett institute. That was the reason why he wanted to make the alarming results known. Had not Pusztai’s long term study revealed the danger, the GE lectin potatoes might very well have turned up on the market, as formally they were “substantially equivalent” with the natural variety, Pusztai said. This case demonstrates the serious insufficiency of the present regulations for food safety that don’t demand long term testing of GE foods, see Substantial equivalence versus scientific food safety assessment. This is the probable reason why great efforts were made to suppress the truth and to “kill” the messenger.
At a recent international conference on Food Safety in Edinburgh, Pusztai was repeatedly attacked and prevented from speaking, see Report about professor Pusztai at the OECD/Edinburgh GE Food Safety Conference in March 2000.
Comment by PSRAST
It seems obvious from the press statements by the Rowett institute from August 1998, that it changed its story from first saying that Pusztai had mixed up the results (which was not true) to saying that the results were not obtained from genetically manipulated potatoes but from normal potatoes mixed with the harmful substance, Lectin (which also was not true). Later it was said, that Pusztai may be right but more studies are needed. Such changes and contradictory statements demonstrate that the institute was manipulating the truth.
The manipulations were such as to harm Pusztai’s credibility. Because Pusztai was gagged by the institute, he could not publicly defend himself. The news about Pusztais “mistakes” was effectively distributed all over the world. People were lead to believe that there was no scientific basis for his warning about GE foods.
As multibillion dollar investments are at stake in the GE food case, drastic actions by the industry to protect these interests are not surprising. Rather it would be contrary to their responsibility towards the owners not to act with maximum force in such a case.
The Rowett institute is formally a charitable and independent institute. But in practice, since the Thathcher government reduced the funding of such research institutes considerably, it has become dependent on the industry. While formally remaining a charitable institute, “Rowett Research Services”, a commercial subsidiary of the institute was created. The profit of this subsidiary is donated to the Rowett institute, that therefore in practice is dependent on the industry for its existence. It has later been revealed that Monsanto had given the Rowett Research Services a $224,000 grant prior to Pusztai’s interview at BBC.
Considering the dependence of Rowett institute on industrial support, it seems probable that it was persuaded, if not forced to deny the truth and create a cover up story to discredit Pusztai. As Pusztai was the first internationally renowned food safety expert who dared to warn for GE foods, the industry had strong incentives to press hard for “co-operation” by the Rowett institute in disarming this “News bombshell” that shook the whole world.
The strategy obviously was to divert public attention away from the GE food safety issue Pusztai raised, which was actually not dependent on his results. In stead the attention was drawn to disputes about his conclusions and about his competence. In a most deplorable way, the society of scientists contributed to this diversion, apparently doing its best to discredit the messenger in stead of observing the serious problem he addressed.
How many unknown cases are there of scientists who did not have the courage of dr Pusztai and chose, in order not to risk their job and career, to keep quiet about their concerns about the lacking safety of GE foods? Considering that it is an undeniable scientific fact that the GE foods are not safe, it is remarkable that very few food safety experts have made similar comments. Ironically, one who did so, one year after the Pusztai interview, was professor Andrew Chesson, the top scientist at Rowett Institute who held in the axe when he was sacked. He said “Potentially disastrous effects may come from undetected harmful substances in Genetically Modified Foods.” (Daily Mail, UK, 13 Sept 1999. See also BBC news 7 sept 1999). Dr Chesson is vice chairman of European Commission scientific committee on animal nutrition. Before this statement he was known as an advocate for food biotechnology.
For more about industrial suppression of scientific truth, see Dysfunctional science – Towards a “pseudoscientfic world order”?