FOOD FIX: G8, OECD, FSA, Krebs and Paterson
There is a sustained attempt to persuade us all of the safety of GM foods in which internationally the OECD, and in the UK Sir John Krebs' Food Standards Agency (FSA) are emerging as key players.
The Heads of State, who include prominent GM industry supporters like Clinton and Blair, of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialised nations asked the OECD to "undertake a study of the implications of biotechnology and other aspects of food safety." The OECD reported back that there was no evidence that existing GM-foods were harmful
From the beginning the OECD would have had no illusions about what was at stake. As Donald J. Johnston, head of the OECD put it in an OECD publication: "...with modern biotechnology the world has discovered a vast new field which is full of potential for creative activity and, for the scientific community at least, patentable and profitable innovations."
In order to achieve its underlying agenda of persuading us that "There is no evidence that GM-food is harmful", the OECD organised a series of conferences, the most important of which was held in Edinburgh, Feb. 29 - March 2, 2000. Only one critical food scientist was invited to Edinburgh, Dr Aarpad Pusztai. Pusztai's conclusion on the conference was damning, "To most impartial observers and participants and certainly to me it appeared to be more of a propaganda forum for airing the views and promoting the interest of the GM biotechnology industry." - see Watching Dr Pusztai
The man the OECD invited to chair this charade was Sir John Krebs, the pro-GM zoologist bizarrely appointed to head the UK's FSA (for more on his role at the conference see Watching Dr Pusztai). The FSA has been billed as a "force for change". In fact, it's business as usual with the FSA taking its advice from exactly the same people (ACNFP) as the UK government did previously. It's complete failure to re-examine the safety of GM foods, while making much of the labelling issue and of "monitoring" for any harmful effects on the population, confirms that the FSA's mission under Krebs is not so much as a force for change as a source of spin!
Sir John Krebs, the pro-GM zoologist bizarrely appointed to head the UK's FSA
Curiously, although showing no interest in investigating the safety of GM foods about which there is a high level of public concern, Sir John Krebs has used his position as head of the agency to get the FSA to focus on organic food which is highly popular with consumers. Sir John's views on organic food have been described by his Irish counterpart, the Chief Executive of the Irish Food Safety Agency, as "extreme". (The Irish Times, 5th September 2000) For more criticism of Krebs' organic attack - click here
The role of the FSA under Krebs as a source of spin is also well-illustrated by the letters the FSA has been sending out in response to letters of concern sent by members of the public to Government ministers. The FSA letters are full of reassurances that, for example, Lord Sainsbury - the long-time biotech enthusiast and entrpreneur, Government Science minister, and one of the Government's principal financial supporters - has no role in relation to GM foods. The question of Lord Sainsbury's influence is a hotly contested politcial issue and it seems extraordinary that an agency supposedly set up to be independent of government should see it as part of its role to defend a Government minister and paymaster.
A good example of the hollow nature of its activities is the FSA's proposed monitoring of the health effects of consuming GM foods - a project taken over from ACNFP and announced in June 2000. In this study shoppers' buying patterns over an 18-month period are to be checked against public health figures. Tim Marshall, a senior lecturer in epidemiology at Birmingham University has described the research as "worthless". Even Prof Will Waites, a spokesman for behalf of the biotech industry lobby group Cropgen, has dismissed it: "It took decades to prove the link between smoking and ill health, and that was fairly obvious. I wouldn't expect them to find anything meaningful in 18 months." (FSA study 'worthless' - BBC news report)
It is not only the appointment and behaviour of Krebs which clearly reveal the FSA's real mission, however. The director of the Scottish arm of the agency is one Dr George Paterson - the former director general of Health Canada's Food Directorate. According to The Scotsman (22nd June 2000), "GM food labelling tops the agency's agenda". This is, in fact, a way of appeasing consumer concern while defending GM foods, as the article makes perfectly clear, "The agency believes safety is no longer an issue following trials done several years ago, but says the focus should now move to consumer information." According to the article: Dr George Paterson, director of the agency in Scotland, said: "Openness, accessibility and transparency are our watchwords at FSA Scotland. They are vital if we are to rebuild public confidence in food safety. The Food Standards Agency is a powerful, independent body and from today we are giving everyone the chance to play their part in the agency's work."
Below are two items on Paterson which tell a very different story! The first is a report on Paterson from Canada, passed on by the journalist George Monbiot. It links Dr Paterson to a major food safety controversy in Canada involving the ignoring of internal government scientists' health warnings concerning the approval of the genetically modified cattle drug Bovine Growth Hormone (rBST). These matters were later exposed in hearings before the Canadian Senate - for more on this controversy. The second item is a Canadian newspaper article on a memo written by Dr Paterson when he was director general of Health Canada's Food Directorate. It documents fast track approval for GM potatoes in Canada brokered between Monsanto and Health Canada under suspicious circumstances, and documented in an internal Health Canada memo from Paterson which was leaked to the Ottawa Citizen. According to the Ottawa Citizen, "........Details of the deal and how it was made point to evidence of high-level industry interference in a regulatory process that the government has defended as impartial and rigorous, said Michele Brill-Edwards, a former Health Canada drug regulator and critic of the system. 'What you're seeing is a high-level example of a very dirty game that practically nobody knows about.' "
None of this suggests Dr Paterson exactly
has a track record in tune with FSA Scotland's watchwords of openness,
accessibility, transparency, and independence. In fact, it almost beggars
belief that placing the likes of Paterson and Krebs at the helm of the
FSA is supposed to inspire consumer confidence! Shouldn't the FSA perhaps
be renamed the Food Spin Agency?
Regarding the [Scotsman] article [see above], which refers to Dr. George
Paterson, as the new director [in Scotland] of UK's new food safety watchdog,
Dr. George Paterson recently came from Canada, where he was Director-General of the Food Directorate, of the Health Protection Branch of Health Canada.
Under his leadership, Health Canada scientists testified there was tremendous pressure on them to approve genetically engineered bovine growth hormone. In fact, Dr. Paterson apparently attended a Codex meeting in June, 1997 with the intention of getting BGH passed. But, after the National Farmers Union (of Canada) faxed Codex, warning of the concerns by Health Canada scientists, the attempt to approve BGH was aborted.
At Canadian Senate hearings, Health Canada scientists testified repeatedly of the enormous pressure on them from Dr. Paterson and his management to approve not only BGH, but other drugs of questionable safety. For instance, revlor-H, a combination of hormones, was approved for injection into cows, even though many scientists at Health Canada objected.
The same hormones were not approved for use in Europe, because of links
to cancer. Health Canada scientists spoke of excessive influence
industry on Health Canada management, who were in turn pressuring the scientists to approve various drugs of questionable safety. These points
were described in detail in the investigation of BGH by the Agriculture Committee on the Canadian Senate.
The quote by Dr. Paterson of "Openness, accessibility and transparency
are our watchwords at FSA Scotland," is quite amazing since these are the
same features that scientists in the Foods Directorate at Health Canada
stated were missing when Dr. Paterson was leading the dept. Dr. Paterson
left the departent in the wake of scandals, characterized by distrust and
alleged mismanagement in the department.
Tuesday, Nov 30 1999, P. A1
Government fast-tracked Monsanto's GM potatoes
Private deal struck quietly to speed up regulatory system
Biotech giant Monsanto Company struck a private deal with senior federal
food regulators that resulted in the swift approval of two new kinds of
genetically modified potatoes, according to an internal Health Canada
document obtained by the Citizen.
The undated memo, addressed to a senior aide for Health Minister Allan
Rock, outlines a deal brokered in March that paved the way for Monsanto
to begin selling its new potato seeds less than two months later.
Until the deal was negotiated, the potatoes had been held up in the
regulatory system because Monsanto refused to provide key scientific
information to regulators assessing the products' health and
environmental effects, the memo shows.
"Monsanto objected to these requests believing that their data adequately
supports their conclusions that these products present 'no significant
environmental, feed or food safety risk.' "
The seeds, marketed by the NatureMark unit of Monsanto and sold under
brand names New Leaf Y and New Leaf Plus, are genetically engineered to
repel two separate potato viruses.
They are also designed to resist the Colorado Potato Beetle, a common pest.
While the seeds have been approved for sale, they do not yet exist in
large enough quantities for commercial farming.
Details of the deal and how it was made point to evidence of high-level
industry interference in a regulatory process that the government has
defended as impartial and rigorous, said Michele Brill-Edwards, a former
Health Canada drug regulator and critic of the system.
"What you're seeing is a high-level example of a very dirty game that
practically nobody knows about. These kinds of meetings go on all the
time and it's almost never captured because people are careful not to
let this kind of thing be known."
She added it is highly unusual for briefing notes of such meetings to
prepared for top ministerial aides.
The memo was written by George Paterson, former director general of
Health Canada's Food Directorate, and addressed to John Dossetor, a
senior policy advisor to Mr. Rock.
Mr. Dossetor did not respond to requests from the Citizen for comment.
While it's unclear who requested the memo or whether Mr. Dossetor
received it, a Health Canada spokeswoman said there are occasions when
ministers' aides are briefed on meetings between regulators and biotech companies.
"This just informs them of what happened at that meeting and it's for
their information," said Lynn Lesage.
The revelations come at a time when consumer sensitivity about
genetically modified foods is high, and the credibility of the country's
food-safety system is being called into question.
This week, New Brunswick-based McCain Foods announced it would stop
buying genetically altered potatoes from Canadian farmers in response to
consumer fears about such products.
The move comes just weeks after 200 scientists from Health Canada's
Health Protection Branch signed a petition that, among other things,
raised alarm at the acute shortage of scientists for evaluations and
risk assessments of genetically modified foods. Public-health critics
also attacked the regulatory system for relying on data supplied by
industry rather than original research.
According to the memo, released under the Access to Information Act
Ottawa-based researcher Ken Rubin, the deal was made after two high-level
meetings in February and March.
The meetings were attended by Ron Doering, president of the Canadian
Inspection Agency (CFIA), officials from Agriculture and Agrifood Canada,
deputy ministers from New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and groups
representing potato growers from four provinces. On the second occasion,
representatives from Monsanto were also present.
The resulting deal set deadlines over a six-week period during which
Monsanto agreed to provide regulators with the missing information. The
data were needed to complete a routine government assessment of the
potatoes' impact on human health and the environment.
In exchange for Monsanto's co-operation, Health Canada and the CFIA
"agreed to a 30-day turnaround for reviewing the information provided"
on the potatoes.
Jane Shapiro, spokeswoman for Monsanto Canada, declined to comment on
reasons the company withheld data from regulators.
The meetings were arranged at the request of potato growers from Prince
Edward Island, New Brunswick, Alberta and Manitoba. The growers were
worried that as a result of Monsanto's incomplete submissions to the
government, the company's new potatoes would not be approved in time for
spring planting, which would put them at a competitive disadvantage with
Patton MacDonald, executive director of the New Brunswick Potato Agency
and one of those present at the meetings, said he first heard the
potatoes were held up in the regulatory system at a seed-industry
conference last December. By early 1999, when federal regulators still
hadn't approved the products, he decided to mobilize the support of
farmers' groups and senior provincial mandarins, he said.
The second meeting, which included a half-dozen senior executives from
Monsanto's Canadian and international divisions, was called to find ways
to ensure the regulators got the information they needed so the product
could be approved quickly, said Mr. MacDonald.
"They (Monsanto) brought their heavy artillery and we were glad about
that, because we thought we would get the answers."
But the resulting deal did not mean Monsanto's potatoes received
rubber-stamp approval, said Grant Watson, the CFIA's national manager of
the variety section, who attended the meetings.
"It was not a case of, 'Well, you give us something and we'll review
and sign it off.' No, it doesn't work that way. There are critical
things that need to be met, and as long as the data answered all our
questions, then we're prepared to look at time and make the decision
within 30 days."
But the memo also shows the deal was not arrived at easily, because
Monsanto refused to sign an agreement allowing all parties to talk
openly about its confidential business information. The company
eventually agreed to a verbal waiver.
Dr. Brill-Edwards said such tactics point to deliberate efforts by
Monsanto to prevent damaging information about its products from
reaching the potato growers. "It's like a courtroom where you don't want
the evidence against you to get out."
According to the memo, government inspections on past "confined field
trials" conducted by Monsanto showed the company performed poorly. As a
result, the CFIA was concerned that Monsanto would "not be able to
adequately manage a larger scale 'field trial.' "