I smell a rat.

Yesterday, Gilles-Eric Séralini and his team had their article published in Food and Chemical Toxicology. It was a study where they explored the long-term effects of a GM herbicide tolerant corn on rodents. After a well-executed PR and communications strategy in advance of its release in London yesterday, the article has caused quite a stir in the media. As a colleague posted: “It has lit up the Twitterverse!”

Check out Andrew Kniss`examination of the study from a statistics perspective – `Why I think Séralini Feeding Trial Study is Bogus` Plus, here are some other links to critiques of the piece (Science Media Centre, UK and Reuters). The Séralini study has been referred to as a `statistical fishing trip`. Anthony Trewavas, professor of cell biology at Edinburgh University, questioned how the research was conducted, saying the number of rats involved in the study – 200 – was way too small to draw any meaningful conclusions. He sees it as a “random variation in a rodent line likely to develop tumors anyway.”

Stirring the media: Backing Séralini and his team in this endeavour to push the (questionable) results of this study into the media is Sustainable Food Trust, an organization out of the UK headed by Patrick Holden. It was quite clear to me that a well-executed communication strategy was conceived (AKA media manipulation) in order to push some very scary things out into the public realm. There was even a video. Leading up to the formal launch of the article, the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) circulated several well-worded, fear-generating bits of info on Twitter and on its website. It even provided a set of pre-crafted tweets online for Twitter users to copy and paste and circulate. Combine this with the fact that the journalists that were given the article in advance (under embargo, which is NOT UNUSUAL) had to sign a non-disclosure agreement promising to not show the study they’re reporting on to any independent researchers or outside experts prior to its official release (VERY UNUSUAL). In Maggie Koerth-Baker’s words (of BoingBoing) “…that’s messed up.” Andrew Revkin also explores this ‘severely tainted situation’ in his NY Times article: Group Promoting Rat Study of Engineered Corn Forced Coverage Rush.

This all points to some serious collusion and contrivance around the study. It kind of reminds me of Wakefield and his Austism/MMR study or Pusztai and his rat/potato study.

At the end of the day, this whole thing raises a bunch of red flags. It not only points to shoddy science but more importantly to problems that I have eluded to in other posts (see below): the influence of political agendas and the peer-review process itself.

I smell a rat. One heck of a media-manipulated rat. Let’s face it, `bad science` can only get ‘good legs` if peer-review doesn`t do its job. Séralini has a political agenda pushing his research ahead. That`s quite evident to me. But where is the accountability on the part of the journal, its editors and the publisher? As an academic science journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology has an obligation to lead and maintain the integrity of the peer-review process. And, based upon what I have read, it appears that there was no independent peer-review conducted on Séralini`s study. Or if it was done, I question the integrity, capability and political agendas of those reviewers. (I have a couple of letters into editors of the journal but its questionable whether I will even get responses.) It will be interesting to see what, exactly, Food and Chemical Toxicology and its publisher Elsevier will do about this; and so disappointing if nothing happens at all.

UPDATE (January 2013): The Séralini study has now been discredited and does not meet acceptable scientific standards by more than 30 food and feed safety organizations worldwide including: Health Canada, European Food and Feed Safety Authority, and the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

Worried about GMOs? Don’t be. Snell etal (2011) review several studies examining effects GM lines of maize, potato, soybean, rice and triticale. The studies in question are of two types: 1) 12 long term toxicological studies, where feeding time exceeds well over (up to 2 years) that of the 90 day studies classically used in toxicological studies applied to GMOs; and 2) 12 studies whose duration extended over several generations of animals. Long story, short Snell etal (2011) conclude that these studies by public research laboratories do not reveal any safety problem linked to long term consumption of GMO-derived food. (It’s interesting to note that the Snell etal article was published in the same journal as the Séralini study.

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Other related blog entries:

For a truly OUTSTANDING summary of the controversy and criticisms surrounding the Séralini study, please check out Jay Byrne’s well-articulated and easy to read online posting.

This from Henry Miller in Forbes.

Online activism, social media lags and poor peer review: When Bad Science Gets Good Legs

Fear profiteering = big profit!” – “…the press does not print “There was no wolf, after all” stories when alarms are shown to be false or overblown. The press and public remember the “Wolf!” story.” (April 2011)

Is Science Missing the Boat? Social media strategy is a must for science advocates (January 20, 2011)

21 thoughts on “I smell a rat.

  1. The reason for choosing those animals is to establish significance in a shorter period of time, which saves costs. I am not aware of many (any?) studies comparing wild type (WT) animals with knock-our or breed-specific animals regarding whether treatments affect WTs like their genetically modified brethren/sistren. Raises a point that the anti-GMO folk are using data from ‘GM’ animals — conflict of interest? Great points you raised, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the issue. — Mark

  2. Pingback: Séralini Rat Study Links | Vegan GMO

  3. Great post Cami, thanks for weighing in on this. You’re absolutely right that there is a huge burden of responsibility on the journal and the review process. One problem with this is that the reviewers are just volunteers – they don’t get paid, and they aren’t employed by the journal, so personal feelings, such as not wanting to harm your career by offending someone famous, can get in the way of a sound review.

    In addition, not all journals are equal, and people wishing to push charlatan science often carefully choose the journals they know wil have a flimsy review process. Scientists learn to distinguish the good journals from the bad, but often activists and journalists don’t know the difference, and will make a story out of a terrible paper in a discredited journal (although in this case I don’t think the journal is generally discredited – at least not until today!).

  4. Great Post. I totally agree. I’d just like to add a few points.

    I also think that rats – not necessarilly this breed – were chosen on purpose. Dr Haub makes a good point on the benefits of picking a species with a short lifespan. (BTW, +1000 Mark for the joke on anti-GMO folks & ‘GM’ animals…) But there may be two others reasons for doing so, especially if we assume this study has more to do with PR than science.

    I’ve heard that well-fed rats, kept away from hungry cats, are very prone to die from cancer. If you feed rats with GM maize long enouhg, many will develop tumors – as they would while eating too much organic potatoes. Then, all you have to do is carry a rabbit’s leg in your pocket and hope you’ll be lucky with the results – or unconscioucely and genuinely euthanasiate less suffering rats in the control group.

    Secondly, rat tumors can grow huge and look really graphic. Just google it – or don’t. Every paper I’ve read on this study spoke of “tumors the size of a ping pong ball.”. Striking. Imagine eating too much GM popcorn and getting a gymball-sized tumor…

    Then, there’s this dose response problem. Rats fed with 22% of GM maize and/or RoundUp coktails get sicker than those who get 33% of it. Whether the deadly poison lies in another part of the diet, whether the results are purely random. Enough for me to think that the whole study is BS.

    Lastly, I’d like to point out that the study is said to have costed 3M Euros. That’s 15.000 Euros per rat. Of course, in addition to the petting, there’s been some blood samples. But it still sounds expansive. For 3 millions, I’d rather read a study about, let’s say “Effects on promuscuity and oxytocin levels of a all-Champaign-and-strawberries diet amongts prairie voles.”

  5. European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) and other scientific groups declared that Serlini’s conclusions in his previous study on Maize Mon 810, claiming that the data showed organ injuries in rats, was unjustified. This lead the EU court to declare that the French ban on cultivation of Mon810 was illegal and the government was ordered to lift the ban. The response by President Sarkozy just before the election was: ‘We will not lift the ban and we will produce the scientific evidence to show that this maize is harmful’. This political ordered ‘scientific’ results have now been delivered by Serlini and the new French president seem as populistic and arrogant to science as the former one. It is such an embarrassment for France and lead the associations to the ordered ‘science’ results by Hitler and Stalin in order to fit their ideologies. It is so sad.

  6. I’m very happy to see that you have queried past the paper itself and into intent. I am a huge believer in letting the papers and science speak for themselves and not probing the agendas of scientists– that’s for activists. However, this case is so glaring. The omitted controls in that photo and labeling them as “GMO” screams the intent. That photo is on every anti-GMO website now. With a book and movie in the wings Seralini is set up to make quite a profit off of the unsophisticated. Good for him, but bad for us that have to unravel his nonsense and re-educate the public.

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  13. Your points are well taken. Still, the basic fact that GMO manufacturers (or Health Agencies regulating them) have not conducted and published studies of the effects of GMOs and pesticides like Roundup on animals for longer than 3 months is, for me, a far larger, and stinkier rat than a scientist wanting to promote his own agenda.
    I think reading one of Séralini’s book yourself, before forming an opinion based on “takes” on Séralini’s books by those who have a vested interest in keeping GMOs on the market because of their profitability, would be a good place to begin. intervalsignals.wordpress.com gmoseralini.org

  14. Pingback: The year of the lab rat study (#GMOMonday) — VOICES for REASON

  15. Pingback: Controversial Seralini paper retracted | Griffin’s Gadgets

    • Awesome. Too bad the study will likely still be a cornerstone of anti- movements who will likely claim that the editor was pushed around by some big Ag conspiracy… It’s also too bad the editor would not point out the many misleading claims, poor data interpretation, poor ethics and extreme design flaws that the study is full of, things which I have trouble believing to be unintentional. To me, the data interpretation and subsequent presentation of results as well as parading around the globe at anti-GM conferences (and cowering from Folta at CATO) shows either incompetence or intentional deception.

      It’s gotta be hard for an editor in chief to admit that their journal published complete rat droppings but the way the retraction is phrased saying that the results are inconclusive and not incorrect leaves the anti’s too much to hang on to and promote. A mention of the funding sources and how the study was promoted and profited from would have been nice as well. Can’t be too greedy though, at least it’s a move in the right direction.

      • Agreed. On all accounts. It’s like they only stepped a tentative toe in the pool of retraction. But I am hoping that it sets a precedent when other incidences like this come up. The discomfort of dipping toes in the retraction pool is eliminated when peer review process is conducted properly in the first place.

  16. Pingback: Retraction reaction… | Cami Ryan

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