Scientist ousted over altered food claim

August 14, 1998

A scientist who warned that his unpublished research raised the possibility that genetically modified food might damage human health was suspended this week by the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen.

According to a press statement from the government-sponsored research institute, Dr Arpad Puztai will now retire.

Earlier this week, Dr Puztai appeared on a World in Action television programme claiming that feeding genetically modified potatoes to rats compromised their immune systems.

Andrew Chesson, a member of the European Union's working party on the safety of genetically modified foods, has been put in charge of Dr Puztai's research. Dr Chesson said this week that the suspended scientist had "made claims about GM potatoes that he could not substantiate with experimental data".

Dr Puztai's claims implied that the genetically altered crops grown in Europe might be unsafe for human consumption. "These statements were made on the basis of no scientific evidence whatsoever because the experiments were not completed," Dr Chesson said. "I believe that Dr Puztai allowed his mind to run forward and speculated about what the results might mean."

The institute agreed that Dr Puztai could appear on World in Action because it recognised its responsibility "not to suppress scientific views of importance". But it said that unpublished data should not be discussed.

It will conduct a fully audited analysis of the data before it is presented to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and EU committees dealing with genetically modified foods. Scientists and expert committees will examine the analysis, which will not be released publicly. The institute said "it was premature to conclude whether or not there are data of concern to those assessing the safety of foods with transgenic lectins".

Sir Aaron Klug, president of the Royal Society, said he "deplored the premature release of unsubstantiated scientific information, which could only mislead the public. Scientific developments in a new and rapidly developing field must be subject to rigorous review after full documentation of the data is available".

Dr Puztai was unavailable for comment.

Opinion, page 11

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