17 March 2003
FSA CHALLENGED OVER 'SPURIOUS AND MALICIOUS ALLEGATIONS' CLAIM
A recent article in the Sunday Herald reported concerns that the head of the Food Standards Agency was pro-GM and "a friend of big business". The article drew on a 35-page report by John Verrall a pharmaceutical chemist and a member of the Government's Veterinary Products Committee who represents the Food Ethics Council on the Codex Alimentarius Consumer Group of the Food Standards Agency.
Dr Jon Bell, acting chief executive, of the UK Food Standards Agency dismissed the report, in comments to the Sunday Herald, as containing 'spurious and malicious allegations'. John Verrall has now written to the paper to issue a public challenge to Bell (see item 1) to either produce evidence that any part of the report is untrue or else to "apologise for the accusations he has made against me".
Below we reproduce several of the recent articles about bias at the FSA. With the likes of John Verrall and Deirdre Hutton, chairman of the National Consumer Council and vice chairman of the European Food Standards Authority, on their case, how much longer can the FSA keep spinning?
1.Food fury - John Verrall challenges FSA to put up or apologise
2.Consumer groups allege pro-GM crops bias - The Financial Times, 14th March
3.FSA accused of pro-GM bias: Consumer groups say website fails to address risks - The Guardian, 14th March
4.Report claims FSA boss 'is pro-GM' - The Sunday Herald, 9th March
See also: 'FOOD FIX: G8, OECD, FSA, Krebs and Paterson'
"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?"
The Sunday Herald, 16th March 2003
THE article by your environment editor Rob Edwards on my 2000 report on hormone growth promoters in which reference was made to Dr George Paterson was not instigated by me (News, March 9).
I do, however, take grave exception to the statement by Dr Jon Bell (acting chief executive) of the UK Food Standards Agency that the report contained 'spurious and malicious allegations' -- it contained neither. It was factual and fully supported by documentary evidence. Bell should now identify any part of the report that is untrue -- or apologise for the accusations he has made against me.
John H Verrall
2.Consumer groups allege pro-GM crops bias
By John Mason, Food and Rural Affairs Correspondent
Financial Times; Mar 14, 2003
Leading consumer groups yesterday accused the Food Standards Agency of being biased in supporting genetically modified crops and failing to address public concerns about the technology.
The National Consumers Council, Consumers' Association and Sustain said the agency's approach to the national debate on GM crops was "highly selective" and "anti-consumer". Dame Sheila McKechnie, head of the Consumers' Association, said: "The FSA is failing in its remit to protect consumers. Our research shows that over half of consumers have concerns about GM, yet the regulator has failed to give any consideration to these concerns. In adopting such a biased stance, the FSA is undermining all the other excellent work it has done since it was established."
The groups' criticism focused on the FSA's website in which it outlines its stance on GM crops as part of the recently launched national debate.
In a letter to Sir John Krebs, the agency's chairman, they accused the agency of selectivity, saying it gave only one side of the argument and failed to address the main uncertainties surrounding GM.
The agency assured consumers that GM foods were as safe to eat as non-GM counterparts and failed to address potential risks and possible long-term health impacts, they said.
The attack will cause concern among many involved in the GM debate. Sir John is also playing a leading role in a review to present the public with an impartial view of the science surrounding GM technology.
The FSA has never before been attacked over its GM stance by mainstream figures such as Deirdre Hutton, chairman of the National Consumer Council and vice chairman of the European Food Standards Authority.
Ms Hutton said: "People have genuine concerns about the safety of GM. All too often they feel left out of the debate and left out of how decisions are made. It is vital that consumers' concerns are not only taken into account, but are acted on."
The Food Standards Agency said its board yesterday discussed feedback on its contribution to the GM debate and endorsed the general approach being taken by the agency.
3. FSA accused of pro-GM bias
Consumer groups say website fails to address risks
Felicity Lawrence, consumer affairs correspondent
The Guardian, 14th March
The food standards agency was condemned yesterday by leading consumer groups who accused it of taking a biased, pro-industry stand over GM technology.
The Consumers' Association, the National Consumer Council, and Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, accused the agency of prejudicing the government's own public debate on whether or not commercial genetically modified crops should be grown in the UK.
The three groups have written to the FSA chairman, Sir John Krebs, criticising the agency website for claiming to offer impartial information on the issue but giving "one side of the argument", and failing "to address the potential risks and consumer concerns about the long-term health impact of genetic modification".
The attack has intensified a rumbling row about whether or not the government has already made up its mind to give the green light to genetic modification of crops.
The government set up an independent public debate to air the issues with interested parties, and a report on that debate is due to go to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in September. An economic study into the benefits of GM crops is meanwhile being conducted by the prime minister's strategy unit and is also due to report in September. But an unnamed minister has been quoted in newspaper reports saying that a decision on GM has already been taken.
Sir John Krebs is known for his pro-GM views, as is Tony Blair, and the FSA has opposed labelling products as GM-free, saying such a move would be unenforceable. He has launched a separate FSA debate which critics say cuts across the public debate.
Jeanette Longfield, of Sustain, said: "It appears that the FSA is not neutral, but pro-GM. We can only speculate about why, but the fear is that certain people are hoping the FSA debate will produce something more favourable to GM than the public debate."
Sheila McKechnie, director of the Consumers' Association, said: "In adopting such a biased stance, the FSA is undermining all the other excellent work it has done since it was established. It must rectify this by rewriting the website immediately to give a genuinely informed and impartial overview of the impact of GM."
Deirdre Hutton, chairman of the National Consumer Council, said: "People have genuine concerns about the safety of GM. All too often they feel left out of how decisions are made. Public debate must be credible."
The FSA defended its decision to conduct its own debate with consumers by saying that it wanted to look independently at the views of people not normally heard, in particular those on low incomes and the young. A spokesperson said: "At a board meeting today the board discussed feedback on its contribution to the GM debate and endorsed the general approach being taken by the agency."
Biotechnology companies, including Monsanto, have made 18 applications to import and grow GM crops in the past few weeks.
The environment secretary, Margaret Beckett, has decided that applications should be processed. The government will recommend that they are passed, but the final decision will be made in Europe.
A spokesman for the environment department said the government wanted open discussion on GM. "We are very pleased the debate process is up and running. It can be no bad thing if a wide cross-section of people becomes engaged in discussing as many of the issues as possible."
4. Report claims FSA boss 'is pro-GM'
Exclusive: By Rob Edwards, Environment Editor
The Sunday Herald, 9th March
The credibility and independence of Scotland's food safety watchdog have been thrown into doubt in the wake of accusations that its top official is in favour of genetically modified food and a friend of big business.
Dr George Paterson, director of the government's Food Standards Agency (FSA) in Scotland, is at the centre of a storm of allegations about his behaviour in his previous job as head of food safety in Canada. Although he is defended by the FSA, politicians and environmental groups want an investigation.
Between 1996 and 2000 Paterson was director general of the food directorate within Health Canada, the government health department. During his tenure the directorate was ensnared in controversy and internal disputes over a series of food safety issues. Now, an unpublished expert report detailing the arguments and exposing the role of Paterson has been passed to the Sunday Herald.
The report was written by John Verrall, a Sussex-based pharmaceutical chemist and researcher with the Food Ethics Council, an independent organisation which works to improve ethical standards in food and agriculture. Although he sent it to ministers, the FSA and others in September 2000, it has not been made public until now.
Over 35 pages the report recounted how Paterson and his colleagues dealt with applications for hormone growth promoters from major multinationals like Monsanto. Verrall alleged that Paterson rejected expert advice from his own scientists questioning the safety of two promoters, Revalor-H and Bovine Somatotropin (BST).
Some of the scientists later filed a formal complaint alleging that they had been 'pressured to pass drugs of questionable safety'.
Verrall claimed there was 'unhealthy collaboration' between Paterson's directorate and Monsanto over the company's failed attempts to win approval for BST. To back up his allegation, he reprinted a series of leaked internal memos between Monsanto and Paterson's staff as an appendix to his report.
Verrall also alleged that Health Canada was in favour of GM food, despite fears about its safety and necessity. An article in 1999 in the Ottawa Citizen newspaper named Paterson as the author of a leaked memo describing a private deal which resulted in swift approval for two new kinds of GM potatoes made by Monsanto.
Given Paterson's track record, Verrall argued it was wrong to appoint him as the director of the FSA in Scotland. 'There must surely be questions regarding the suitability, acceptability and timeliness of this appointment. It does nothing for the credibility of an organisation, one of whose prime functions was said to be the restoration of public confidence,' said his report. Green MSP Robin Harper will ask the Scottish Executive to investigate the claims. 'I would find it quite unacceptable to have anybody known to be an enthusiast of GM technology in a senior position in the FSA,' he said.
Dr Jon Bell, acting chief executive of the Food Standards Agency in the UK, said: 'We are surprised to see the re-emergence of spurious and malicious allegations from more than three years ago. At that time the Food Standards Agency's most senior officials made it very clear they had the utmost faith in the appointment of Dr George Paterson as director for Scotland.'
He continued: 'We were then, as we are now, completely satisfied Dr Paterson's appointment followed the usual rigorous selection process which accompanies any senior appointment of this nature. There is absolutely no doubt over the integrity of Dr Paterson or his stewardship of operations at FSA Scotland.'