HEBDEN BRIDGE, U.K.--A scientific panel today called the study that triggered widespread alarm in the United Kingdom over the safety of transgenic crops "flawed." The panel, convened by Britain's Royal Society, says protein biochemist Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen didn't have the data to support his claim that eating transgenic potatoes harmed rats.
Pusztai was suspended from the Rowett last year after declaring on a TV show that potatoes engineered to produce a natural insecticide stunted growth and weakened the immune system in rats that had eaten them for 110 days. The institute's director, Philip James, said that Pusztai had based his conclusions, which drew worldwide media attention, on "muddled" experiments. But in a written statement last February, 21 European and American scientists supported Pusztai, causing a second media frenzy and triggering allegations that the data had been subject to a cover-up (ScienceNOW, 12 February 1999 ).
Today, the Royal Society presented a review of Pusztai's data by an anonymous panel of six scientists with expertise in statistics, clinical trials, physiology, nutrition, growth, and development. According to the panel, several flaws--including poor experimental design, uncertainty about the chemical composition of the potatoes fed to the rats, the small number of rats studied, and poor statistical analysis--make the data in Pusztai's experiments "inadequate."
Pusztai, however, defends his work, telling ScienceNOW that his interactions with the Royal Society have been "preposterous." He says he had offered his "fullest cooperation," hoping for a discussion of his work. However, all the panel wanted, he says, was to peer review his data as if they had been submitted for publication. Pusztai insists his material wasn't fit to be reviewed that way, because it consisted of raw data that couldn't be judged like a scientific paper.