The controversy in Britain over genetically modified food reached a new high today, after 21 European and American scientists released a memorandum supporting a scientist who was suspended last year for sounding a premature alarm about the health threat of genetically altered potatoes. Their action prompted members of the British House of Commons to urge a moratorium on genetically modified food.
The Rowett affair erupted on 10 August, when Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, appeared on Granada's TV show "World in Action" and declared that transgenic potatoes had stunted growth in rats that had eaten them for 110 days (Science, 21 August 1998, p. 1124). The potatoes contained a gene encoding a lectin, a protein that deters insects in some plants. The world press immediately besieged Pusztai's institute, but 2 days later, the institute's director, Philip James, said Puzstai's data turned out to be "a total muddle." The disconcerting conclusions, James said, were based on experiments with nontransgenic potatoes.
The institute suspended Pusztai and confiscated the data for investigation by a four-member audit committee. Their report, released on 28 October, acknowledged that Pusztai had in fact carried out experiments with lectin-transgenic potatoes, but concluded that the results did not support the suggestion that the potatoes affected growth, organ development, or immune function in rats.
Pusztai, who was forbidden by Rowett to talk to the press, last fall sent copies of the audit report and his own rebuttal to dozens of scientists, asking them to review the documents. The responses, presented today at a press conference in the House of Commons, conclude that the transgenic potato did affect the rats' immune systems and slowed their growth. The data in the audit report, the reviewers say, "appeared to be arbitrarily selected and biased towards brushing aside the conclusions of the experimental findings." The audit committee's chair, Rowett senior scientist Andrew Chesson, says he stands by his report but doesn't want to discuss the reviewers' findings, to avoid a debate about raw data in the press.
The new analyses of Pusztai's data immediately led Labour MP (Member of Parliament) Alan Simpson to demand a "complete moratorium" on genetically modified food--a measure British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a radio interview he wasn't ready to take. Simpson also demanded to know why Rowett silenced Pusztai. "If the data are now being corroborated, someone has to explain the basis upon which his research was suppressed," he says.