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Scientists call for moratorium on genetically modified foods

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: (Published 20 February 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:483
  1. Bryan Christie
  1. Edinburgh

    A group of scientists from 13 countries has supported calls for a moratorium on the release of genetically modified foods after endorsing unpublished research that has raised fears of potentialhealth hazards

    The British government has come under pressure to act after an announcement by the 22 scientists that research carried out by Dr Arpad Pusztai at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen had found evidence of immune system changes and organ damage in rats fed on genetically modified potatoes

    Dr Pusztai was suspended from his post last year after presenting details of his unpublished findings in a Granada Television World in Action documentary. Since then, totally opposing views have formed about the research, which was part of a £1.6m ($2.56m) project funded by the Scottish Office

    The Rowett Research Institute carried out a review of Dr Pusztai's work after the television programme and concluded that the data did not support any suggestion that the consumption of the potatoes had any effect on growth, organ development, or immune function of the rats

    The director of the institute, Professor Philip James, said at the time that two experiments seemed to have been muddled up, which misled Dr Pusztai into making the wrong conclusion

    The scientists who have studied Dr Pusztai's data say, however, that they have confirmed the accuracy of his findings, and they have protested at the way he has been treated

    Professor Mihaly Sajgo, a biochemist at Godollo University of Agriculture, Hungary, said that he found Dr Pusztai's findings to be absolutely correct: “The experiments [on genetically modified food] are premature and are not very controlled. We don't know what the consequences will be. It'svery similar to what happened with thalidomide.”

    A cautious approach

    The scientists have urged that a cautious approach to genetically modified foods should be taken until more is known about their effects, and they have warned of disturbing parallels with the BSE problem in cattle, which is the most likely cause of a new form of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease inhumans

    Dr Ronald Finn, past president of the British Society of Allergy and Environmental Medicine, said: “We should be extremely careful to monitor any further change in food technology.”

    The Rowett Research Institute responded to the scientists' intervention by issuing a statement accusing them of making several misleading claims. The statement said that the original review wasbased on Dr Pusztai's initial data but that since then he had produced further data. It adds: “Theinstitute has always encouraged him to submit his findings for publication in a reputable, peer reviewed scientific journal and continues to do so. Dr Pusztai's experiments and conclusions could then be scrutinised by all scientists working in the field and made available to the public and policy makers.”

    Dr Pusztai, who is barred from speaking on the issue because of a confidentiality agreement with the institute, forwarded a report on his research to the Scottish Office in October, but nothinghas been released. The Scottish Office has said that it is up to the institute to publish it

    Meanwhile, calls for a moratorium have been rejected by the British government, which has sought to reassure consumers that genetically modified foods are allowed to be sold in the United Kingdom only after going through a long regulatory process

    The prime minister, Tony Blair, said: “Let's proceed on the basis of genuine scientific analysis and inquiry.” Accusations have been made that political and commercial pressures have been applied to discredit Dr Pusztai's work

    Professor James, who has close links with the government and helped to draw up plans for the Food Standards Agency, has strongly denied any such suggestion. “We have never been under any political, industrial, or other pressure to suppress or partially report any studies.”

    Dr Pusztai's claims have been questioned by another scientist who took part in the experiments. Dr John Gatehouse, a reader in biological sciences at Durham University, said that the damage to the rats is more likely to have been caused by a build up of natural toxins in the potatoes they were fed, rather than any effect of genetic modification


    Genetically modified foods have prompted much debate and concern

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