Researcher in genetic food scare is suspended from job

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BIOTECHNOLOGY companies were crowing last night after the scientist who claimed to have evidence that genetically modified foods could harm health was suspended from his job when his results were shown to be false.

Urgent independent checks at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen found that Professor Arpad Pusztai had not, as he claimed in Granada Television's World in Action programme on Monday night, done experiments in which transgenic potatoes were fed to rats. Instead, the rats ate normal potatoes, spiked with a toxic protein that the extra genes - which were not present - might have made.

The effects are not comparable and the entire experiment must be redone, said Andrew Chesson, the institute's head of research. He said Professor Pusztai admitted that his claimed results were misleading. "It is extremely embarrassing ... He was a very senior member of staff. We assumed his work was beyond reproach."

The news offered the first PR victory for biotechnology companies, which have come under fierce attack this year from MPs, retailers and pressure groups over their development and marketing of genetically modified crops and foods.

Colin Merritt, technical director of the biotech giant Monsanto, said: "It is an awful mistake, and these revelations are absolute dynamite."

Monsanto spokesman Dan Verakis claimed the retraction proved that consumers had nothing to worry about from modified foods. "In just 48 hours we have gone from statements that genetically modified foods can harm immune systems to: `Sorry, but it was bad information'," he said. "Friends of the Earth and those types of groups went out and tried to promote an emotional and typical scaremongering attitude. It just goes to show that people should not overreact so quickly."

Friends of the Earth countered: "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."

Dr Chesson said the re-run experiments would be published in six months' time.