British Governement Admits
Mishandling of Arpad Pusztai

June 22, 2002

The Guardian (London) Saturday
Rob Evans

The campaign to discredit an "ageing and frail" scientist who raised
doubts about the safety of genetically modified foods turned him into a
martyr, according to Whitehall papers. In frank memorandums, Whitehall
officials admit that the government mishandled the row about the
findings of Arpad Pusztai and that the furore damaged the public's
confidence in GM technology.

Dr Pusztai, 72, became entangled in a long running controversy after
he publicised the results of his experiments at the Rowett research
institute in Aberdeen, which indicated that genetically modified potatoes
had harmed rats.

The memos were obtained by the Guardian and the BBC during an
investigation into the development of GM foods for a programme,
Bitter Harvest, to be shown tomorrow. In July 1999, a few months into
the controversy, an official in the then ministry of agriculture, food and
fisheries wrote that the "handling of the Pusztai issue is one which
concerns me and I am not sure that we have learned the lessons."

Dr Pusztai was told to retire from his research institute after he described
on a television programme how rats had become stunted, and their immune
systems had been depressed, when they were fed genetically altered
potatoes. Ministers sought to undermine his results, and scientists from
opposing camps fought over the validity of the work. A group from the
Royal Society, Britain's most distinguished scientific body, investigated
his experiments and claimed that the tests were "flawed in many aspects
of design, execution and analysis".

The Maff official noted: "The sight of this heavy handed scientific community
bringing its full academic prejudice to bear on this frail, ageing scientist lost
much of the case on sympathy and fairness grounds." The official added that,
"with the benefit of a significant amount of hindsight", the government should
have taken a different approach. Ministers should have said that they were
interested in his results, but noted that they had been found without enough
resources. Ministers should have told Dr Pusztai: "[Your results] do not
have any immediate relevance for food safety but we want to repeat what
you have done on a larger scale to see whether there really is anything
to be concerned about. "This might have avoided making a martyr of Dr
Pusztai and no doubt would have given the anti-GM lobby some reason for

In another memo, a Maff official wrote that the row among the experts "further
eroded public confidence in the opinions of scientists". Another official said
Dr Pusztai's findings were "fuelled by a sustained campaign against GM foods

This in turn helped to create an atmosphere of alarm and suspicion amongst
UK customers resulting in widespread avoidance of the use of GM ingredients
in foods by the major supermarkets and manufacturers." But one official argued
that the damage was inflicted not by the dispute, but by the research
itself. "The now discredited research and announcements based on the
work by Pusztai caused immense damage to GM technology. Had the findings
been well founded, there may have been some cause for some concern and
perhaps a setback to GM technology, but the damage was done on the basis
of poor experimentation and uninterpretable results."

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