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Austria withdraws study on the long-term consequences of GM maize

(26 March 2010) Austria has withdrawn a study on long-term feeding trials with mice that was published in November 2008. The study had caused quite a public stir since some of the mice that were fed with genetically modified maize gave birth to fewer offspring. The media and gene technology critics had interpreted the result as evidence of a reduced fertility caused by GM maize.

The Austrian government had announced in a meeting of the 'Standing Committee for the Food Chain and Animal Health' at the EU commission in October 2009 that the scientists commissioned to do the study failed to deliver a satisfactory report on this study, especially with respect to the statistical analysis of the data. In addition, the Austrian Ministries that had commissioned the study no longer expected to receive such an evaluation.

Almost a year before, the committee had discussed the then newly published study and had come to the conclusion that the data did not allow any inferences to be drawn concerning the investigated GM maize - a cross between the maize lines NK603 and MON810. At that time, Austria had agreed to reappraise the statistical evaluation of the data.

The study, carried out by a working group of the University of Vienna under the leadership of Prof. Jürgen Zentek (now at the TU Berlin), was presented at a meeting in Vienna in November 2008. At the same time the first press releases appeared: "Consumption of GM maize reduces fertility" wrote Greenpeace and demanded that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) should be closed because of incompetence and that all approved genetically modified plants should be removed from the market. The news service Glocialist going a step further wrote "GM maize causes impotence". Austrian politicians of all parties regarded their 'enormous concern' about gene technology in agriculture as confirmed.

Zentek and his coworkers had fed their experimental mice a diet that comprised of one third GM maize from the NK603×MON810 cross. A control group had received conventional maize. In another experiment mice were fed over four generations with both diets. In the evaluation of the long-term study published at that time, the number of offspring in the third and fourth litters were less than for the control group fed with conventional feed. Although Zentek warned about hasty generalisations, since then the study has been consistently cited by gene technology critical groups as evidence for health risks through genetically modified food plants.

Subsequently, Austria introduced the study into the consultation at the EU level. It was, according to a government representative speaking to the Standing Committee on 16 December 2008, "Part of comprehensive efforts of the Austrian Government regarding the safety of GM plants". After the discussion, it was observed in the protocol of the "Consensus between Member States" meeting that "the study did not answer the question of safety of the GM maize NK603×MON810. The Austrian authorities should consider whether they could provide EFSA and the Member States with the raw data."

Previously both EFSA and some national authorities had examined the results of the feeding study and had come to the conclusion that no inferences could be drawn from the report since the data were incomplete and contradictory. In addition, important information necessary for a scientific evaluation of the study was missing.

Despite their acceptance at that time, the Austrian government was apparently not able to provide either these data or a statistically correct evaluation.


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