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Wednesday, August 12, 1998 Published at 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK


Genetics scientist suspended

Dr Arpad Pusztai will now retire

BBC Science Correspondent James Wilkinson reports
The scientist at the centre of controversial claims over the risks of eating genetically-modified (GM) food has been suspended.

Dr Arpad Pusztai claimed research on rats fed with genetically modified potatoes had suffered immune damage.

He had gone on the ITV World In Action programme to raise questions about the safety of GM food in the human diet on the basis of the study.

But his employers, the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, said the scientist had got into a "muddle" and had provided misleading information.

Professor Phillip James: "He went too fast, too early"
'Tragic' mistake

Professor Phillip James, Director of the Aberdeen-based Rowett Research Institute, said Dr Arpad Pusztai had been interpreting the wrong data.

[ image: Professor Phillip James:
Professor Phillip James: "tragic mistake"
"Dr Arpad Pusztai had got himself, under the intense pressure of media interest and huge complex experiments, into a state where he actually thought he was looking at the transgenic study when he was not."

Professor James described the mistake as tragic. "He went too fast, too early."

Dr Arpad Pusztai will now retire. In a statement, the Rowett said he would not in future have responsibility for institute, UK or European studies into GM food.

Widespread debate

The comments of the scientist on TV provoked widespread debate. Several MPs called on the government to implement a moratorium on GM foods.

[ image: The claims were carried on an ITV programme]
The claims were carried on an ITV programme
Dan Verakis, a spokesman for the giant biotech company Monsanto which is pioneering much of the work in the field of GM food, welcomed the Rowett's decision to suspend Dr Arpad Pusztai.

"We are very pleased that the Rowett Research Institute has publicly regretted the tremendous harm caused by publicising this type of very misleading information in the name of science," he said.

However, Friends of the Earth - a fierce opponent of GM foods - said the mistake made by Dr Arpad Pusztai made no difference to the central arguments.

"There can be no justification for allowing the commercial development of these crops until that research has been conducted, properly published and subjected to full peer-group review," a spokesman said.

Expert scrutiny

The Rowett said the research on the health effects of genetically modified potatoes will now be subjected to thorough analysis by a panel of experts.

[ image: The research was incomplete]
The research was incomplete
The research involves the study of two modified potatoes: one carries the gene taken from a snowdrop and another incorporates a gene from a tropical vegetable called the South American Jack Bean.

Both protect the potato from insects but the vegetable gene is known to have toxic qualities that could be harmful to human health.

The modified potatoes have been fed to rats. The final data from the experiments will be available by Friday of this week but the Rowett will not release the findings until they have been properly scrutinised by "collaborating groups of scientists and official expert committees."

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