The strange case of the rats, the 'cover-up' and a political hot potato

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THE CASE of the rats, the potatoes and Dr Pusztai would be worthy of Sherlock Holmes. But would the famous literary sleuth detect malfeasance or accident in the events that have now entwined everyone from shoppers to the Prime Minister?

It began on a quiet Sunday in August last year. Granada TV put out a press release for an episode of World In Action, to be shown on the Monday night. In a report on genetically modified foods, it contained an interview with Dr Arpad Pusztai at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen. He claimed that rats he had fed on genetically modified potatoes showed damage to their immune systems.

If true, it would be a shocking result. Amid the doldrums of the silly season, many newspapers headlined the claim even though the data had not been peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal, which is the standard requirement for authenticity.

More mysterious was how Dr Pusztai would know the tests results. A properly designed experiment uses codes so that the person feeding the rats does not know whether they are feeding modified or "control" food to the animals, so that their observations of the results are uncoloured.

Only when the experiment is complete and the results collated is the code broken. So how could Dr Pusztai know before the end of the experiments that the potatoes had the claimed effect?

The chiefs at the Rowett Institute, where the Hungarian emigre, then 68, was working as an associate (because he was past its official retirement age, but retained for his expertise in plant poisons called lectins) moved quickly. They called in all the experimental data available.

Meanwhile, even the scientists who had supplied the modified potatoes to the institute expressed surprise. Lectins are a known poison; of course if they were in the potatoes you would expect an effect, they said.

By the Tuesday, the Rowett chiefs had seen enough. Dr Pusztai was told to retire: the institute said that he had not even begun the experiments which would confirm the claims he had made on television; it regretted "the release of misleading information about issues of such importance".

Professor Philip James, the institute's director, said Con A, the lectin that was to be used, "is known to be a vicious stimulant of the immune system". And the experiments had been done only with normal potatoes spiked with Con A - not transgenic ones. "He got carried away," he said.

And that seemed to be that. The debate continued but as the summer wore on it was crops - and their destruction - that came to the fore. Dr Pusztai's work, which had been funded by the Scottish Office, was apparently consigned to the dustbin. It was a sad end, said his colleagues, to what had been a distinguished caree. Nobody doubted his expertise and experience. But he had made claims about an important topic that were not backed up by his work. That, to scientists, verges on blasphemy.

However, the renaissance of the issue of modified foods, apparently sparked three weeks ago by a question put by William Hague, the leader of the Opposition, shoved questions about food safety back into the limelight. Abruptly, Dr Pusztai's work regained its public profile.

The Mail on Sunday and The Guardian acquired information, including photographs, about the tests. More than 20 scientists signed a letter claiming that his work had been misrepresented.

At this point the mystery deepens again. Why did those scientists speak up for Dr Pusztai, and why now? Why not back the publication and peer- review, or at least the continuation to a conclusion of the work?

The names are a mixed bunch, combining medics, ecologists, paediatricians, vets and nutritionists. The oddest thing about their "declaration" was that they said a public airing of the data would "remove the stigma of alleged fraud". But nobody ever suggested that Dr Pusztai committed fraud.

Dr Pusztai is not allowed to speak about the work, as a condition of his contract, but in a letter to a supporter he said the Scottish Office was suppressing his "alternative report", adding: "At least some MPs ought to know that there has been a cover-up, so that when the whole truth is revealed, they cannot say, 'I am afraid I did not know what was going on'."

Yesterday, one of Dr Pusztai's former colleagues was unhappy about what had happened. "I was a supporter of his, but not this. I'm sure he feels he's been wronged, and that he would like to get a little of his own back. But the trouble is that truth and objectivity are getting left behind."

He added: "It gets beyond a joke when you're frightening people. If we're going to start using the Daily Mail as the place for publishing our results, we might as well give up science altogether."

How Concerns

Were raised

January 1998

With the Rowett Institute's permission, Dr Pusztai appears on Newsnight and expresses concern about weakened immune systems in rats fed GM potatoes.

April 1998

Preliminary findings of research given to government inspectors.

Dr Pusztai gives interview to World in Action.

June 1998

Dr Pusztai's team is denied additional funding to continue research.

10 August 1998

World in Action broadcast in which Dr Pusztai says he would not eat GM potatoes. He says he found it "very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs". Dr Pusztai is praised in press release issued by Professor Philip James.

11 August 1998

Demand in Commons for moratorium on GM food sales. Professor James again backs Dr Pusztai.

12 August 1998

Professor James suspends Dr Pusztai and announces an audit of his research. He says he regrets the release of "misleading information".

28 October

Audit report clears Dr Pusztai of scientific fraud but says his findings are not supported by his data.

14 February

Biotechnology companies have been offered millions of pounds by Government to encourage them to be in the UK, reveals the Independent on Sunday.