Ethics debate intensifies over retraction of flawed Séralini GMO rat study

The ethics controversy over Food and Chemical Toxicology’s decision in November to retract a controversial GMO corn rat study by Gilles-Eric Séralini and colleagues at Caen University in France continues to simmer.

Writing for the Hasting Center’s Bioethics Forum blog, two Georgetown University professors—Adriane Fugh-Berman, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology and in the Department of Family Medicine, and Thomas G Sherman, director of the university’s Biomedical Sciences Program—blast the retraction, writing that it “reeks of industry pressure” and is a “black mark on medical publishing, a blow to science, and a win for corporate bullies.”

Fugh-Berman is well known for her belief that industry is a corrupting force in science, and this broadside applies that scrim to this issue. The professors favorably site a European NGO known for its anti-GMO views, SpinWatch, and make a number of controversial points:

  • The quality or scientific integrity of a journal article should not be a factor when a retraction is being considered; in other words, the fact that the Séralini study has been reviewed and rejected as sound science by every major food and biotechnology oversight organization in the world is of no consequence
  • It would have been perfectly appropriate for the journal to have written an editorial expressing its concerns. Instead, it seems the editors may have succumbed to industry pressure to do the wrong thing.
  • The media coverage in the U.S. has been one-sided; criticism of Séralini’s study has been widely covered in mainstream press, while information about the conflicts of interest of critics have remained in the alternative press.

“There are hundreds of studies that should be permanently removed from the scientific literature, but the Séralini study is not one of them,” the authors conclude.

The Hastings Center report was widely circulated by anti-GMO activists, such as GMWatch, and including anti-GMO foodie Michael Pollan, who immediately headlined it on his Facebook page (more than 75,000 followers ‘liked’ his post) and tweeted it while ignoring articles and the dozens of international independent science organizations supportive of the journal’s decision.PollanThe Hastings Center article prompted an analysis and searing rebuke by Marc Brazeau, who writes the RealFood.org blog.

“First, Fugh-Berman and Sherman fail to put the retraction in the context of Séralini’s own ethical lapses,” he notes. “There were lapses in both the execution of the study and in his handling of the publicity following publication.”

In an unprecedented step that infuriated journalists worldwide, Séralini embargoed the release of the study except to journalist’s with well known anti-GMO views in an apparent attempt to foil critical coverage and promote the simultaneous release of his book.

Brazeau also challenges the Georgetown professors for claiming that the fact that the study’s data was incomplete, misrepresented or inconclusive was not grounds enough for a retraction. Séralini made “confident conclusions,” he noted, unsupported by the data. “It’s one thing to publish inconclusive results. It’s another thing to portray the evidence as demonstrating something that it does not. Even more problematic is that he went around the world trumpeting his conclusions,” despite an “avalanche of criticism … debunking his research.”

Did Food and Chemical Toxicology cave to industry pressure, as the professors claim? “The incentives don’t really seem to point in that direction. For the industry, the retraction is a formality,” he writes. “The paper had already been universally discredited. It could only reflect poorly on the industry and stir up paranoia in those rallying to Séralini’s cause.”—which is exactly what has happened, encapsulated by the professors’ attack piece.

They state that the quality of the Séralini’s work is beside the point. This is wrong. They seem to think that the Séralini Affair is a he said/she said affair; as if it were impossible for bystanders to assess whose position is stronger. It isn’t. Anyone with an 8th grade science education can understand the issues with the paper. Unless they are trying not to. The insinuation that the motivations of those who slammed the study could be explained by conflicts of interest is beside the point. It is beside the point because Séralini’s work was clearly substandard.

Brazeau upbraids the professors for what he suggests is a cheap shot in their assertion that the journal and Séralini’s critics are all industry tools with ‘conflicts of interest.’

Related article:  Seralini rat study on toxicity of GM crops republished

“[I]t becomes a ‘Get of Jail Free Card’,” he writes. “[I]t becomes an excuse for dismissing strong evidence and sound analysis. It leaves you lost in a hall of mirrors, surrounded by industry-funded research, revolving door regulators, and defending bad research that confirms your biases. It leaves you lost in a fever swamp of paranoia without firm footing. … “Fugh-Berman and Sherman level charges of conflict of interest while dismissing the questions about the quality of Séralini’s work. This is upside down and backwards. They should know better.”

As Brazeau and others have pointed, the familiar anti-GMO charges of ‘industry corruption’ or ‘conflict of interest’ are often tactics designed to divert attention from the empirical data. The central question here: Does Séralini’s data sync with his conclusions? The post publication peer review process has overwhelmingly concluded “no.”

And of course similar ‘conflict of interest’ allegations could be leveled against Séralini, but the professors tellingly do not adresss the French professors problematic history. The Séralini study was released the same week in 2012 that he launched a promotional campaign for his book titled “Tous cobayes!” (which translates to “We’re all guinea pigs!”). He is a consultant for Sevene Pharma (a homeopathic pharma company) and there is evidence that he is linked to Invitation to Life, a New Age faith healing cult, which touts his work.

Seralini’s research campaign (reported to be more than 5 million Euros was funded in part with more than 3.2 million Euros by French organic food giants Auchan and Carrefour. Publicity for the release of his GMO rat feeding study claims was coordinated by the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) lead by former UK organic industry Soil Association executive director Patrick Holden. Former SFT staffer Henry Rowlands, now an organic marketing exporter and publisher, hosts and maintains the GMO-Seralini official websites.

Greenpeace, which is steadfastly critical of GMOs, has funded previous Séralini studies of GMO corn that raised other health concerns–a clear conflict of interest. Those studies were reviewed by the independent European Food Safety Authority, which concluded that the authors’ claims were not supported by the data.

It appears that in their ethics critique, the Georgetown University professors presented only one side of the story.

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication and STATS (Statistical Assessment Service) at George Mason University.

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48 thoughts on “Ethics debate intensifies over retraction of flawed Séralini GMO rat study”

  1. Jon, thanks for the shout out. That post grew out of a couple different discussions in GMO SkeptiForum. So, those folks deserve a shout out as well.
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/GMOSF/

    I’d like to underline that the Fugh-Berman and Sherman is a teachable moment for when and how to use questions of industry influence and conflicts of interest to evaluate contentious claims about science.

    In the piece I wrote:

    ” It’s valid to be aware of conflicts of interest. It is a reason for
    heightened scrutiny. However, those potential conflicts only become
    salient when presented with questions which can’t be explained
    otherwise. We ask first order questions. Is the evidence and analysis consistent with basic principles of how we understand the world? Is the analysis solid? Do results seem consistent with common experience?

    If those first order questions haven’t raised any flags, there is no
    point in asking a second order question about conflicts of interest.”
    an excuse for discounting inconvenient evidence. Asking about conflicts of interest should be safeguard against getting snookered. Instead, it becomes a way to justify motivated reasoning.”

    • “It’s valid to be aware of conflicts of interest. It is a reason for
      heightened scrutiny.” That’s right. But I notice that none of the people criticizing the retraction of the study are pointing out Seralini’s funding sources.

      “Is the evidence and analysis consistent with basic principles of how we understand the world? Is the analysis solid? Do results seem consistent with common experience?” No, no and no. But do the half baked results in any way help those businesses that funded his work?

  2. “The quality or scientific integrity of a journal article should not be a factor when a retraction is being considered; in other words, the fact that the Séralini study has been reviewed and rejected as sound science by every major food and biotechnology oversight organization in the world is of no consequence”

    ““There are hundreds of studies that should be permanently removed from the scientific literature, but the Séralini study is not one of them,” the authors conclude.

    Then on what criteria did those authors use to choose which studies should be removed in their opinion?

  3. ‘Adriane Fugh-Berman, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology and in the Department of Family Medicine, and Thomas G Sherman, director of the university’s Biomedical Sciences Program—blast the retraction, writing that it “reeks of industry pressure” and is a “black mark on medical publishing, a blow to science, and a win for corporate bullies.”’
    I think these two need to examine their priorities. The study itself was a blow to science–at least competent, well conducted work. That work was then released in a highly suspicious manner, befitting a reality TV show more than the normal unveiling of serious science.

  4. Hi! Just wanted to chime in here with a serious question. I love how respectful you are to everyone and I hope you have the time to answer me after a little back story…

    I was a former anti-GMO activist. In 2012, I marched up and down at rallies with signs and told everyone to vote YES on Prop 37 in CA. Then, one day I happened upon an article that said that being anti-GMO was the same thing as being a global warming denier! That freaked me out. I always considered myself to be very pro-science, pro-vaccine, evolution, etc. I had to get to the bottom of the author’s accusation.

    So, I ended up here, and am actually ashamed of myself that I got involved in a campaign run by scaremongers who are ultimately anti-science, or cherry-pick the “science” that supports their claims. Now I have made it my goal to try to educate others who were duped just like I was. No one really wants to listen, of course, but still, I try. At least I can be knowledgeable when talking to people who are on the fence about GMOs.

    I am absolutely loving educating myself on the benefits of GMOs, and am excited to learn about new ways in which GMOs could benefit humankind and our environment.
    One question/concern I have though, is about “Round-up Ready” corn. Isn’t Round-up toxic to the environment, and ultimately, hazardous to our health? If GMO corn is doused in Round-up, isn’t that a health concern? I know studies show that GM corn isn’t a threat, so my main concern is with the Round-up. I get in debates with anti-GMO activists (who are upset I turned on them), so I need to be armed with the facts. Can you please post some studies to back up any info you send me?

    Also, I know people are constantly talking about Monsanto being an evil company. I was guilty of it myself. I have searched and searched for unbiased articles on Monsanto’s practices, and it’s hard to decipher what is true, and what is simply anti-GMO propaganda. I would like to find out the truth about them if possible. I’m sure since they are a huge corporation, they aren’t exactly saints, but still…can they really be that evil? If you have any links to unbiased articles on them, I would really appreciate it! Thank you kindly in advance!

    • When the companies making GMO’s will bear the responsability to prove their product safe, that GMO’s will be labeled and when they will stop bringing farmers to court for their own product contaminating the farmers’s fields and deciding instead of our governments then and only then we might start trusting them. Have you realized that companies like Monsanto only act behind agencies and you actually never see them argue against studies like Seralini’s. They don’t want anyone to ask them anything as they don’t want to answer any question. Why is that? They have however many people from our government agencies acting for them. Don’t you think its questionnable? I have watched many videos where Seralini is explaining his study and no one could really find any weaknesses in his study. The only thing they talked about was the kind of rats(same as Monsanto’s) and the number of rats. But his study is by far more significative they any of the Monsanto’s studies regarding toxicity.

      Moreover Seralini is only asking for more studies and he’s not saying that he has the whole truth. He’s also asking for Monsanto’s studies and we should all agree with that for our own health.

    • Pro-science does NOT imply pro-vaccine. Vaccines can be effective or not, dangerous or not. Some vaccines are both dangerous and probably useless (like flu).

        • Hep b, flu, HPV vaccines have been linked with cases of autoimmune disorders or even death.

          Please give me reputable evidence that either of these is beneficial.

          lol

          • Show me reputable studies. Your rebuttal is meaningless without citations. Flu, Hep B and HPV cause death as well. LOL

          • Well, since you are the one who is making claims that go against the scientific consensus, it is your obligation in this debate to provide evidence that the vaccines you mentioned are unsafe and useless. Since you have shown me nothing, I will assume that you cannot find anything to support your claims.

          • ” The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is transmitted through contact with blood or other body fluids of an infected person, or through household contacts. ”

            ????

            “At least 200,000 new infections occur yearly”

            How can one know, when many have no sumptoms?

            “Laws requiring vaccination for school and day-care entry form a crucial part of the public health safety net and provide the capability not only to control diseases but also to eradicate them.”

            Go fascism go!

          • Damn those fascists, trying to keep babies healthy! How dare they take away my right to spread diseases to those who have compromised immune systems! Next thing you know they will be coming for my guns!


          • Flu vaccines cause narcolepsy. (Maybe in the European H1N1 vaccine. But probably not.)”
            WRONG, the link has been officially recognised.

            Moron.

          • From the CDC: “In response to the events in Europe, CDC reviewed data from the U.S. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) and the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD)
            and to date have found no indication of any association between
            U.S.-licensed H1N1 or seasonal influenza vaccine and narcolepsy.”

            Did you know the flu kills about 36,000 people in the U.S. each year? One of my friends almost died from the flu this year–she was on life support for 2 weeks. And your argument against getting the flu vaccine is possible narcolepsy? I’ll take my chances on the vaccine.

          • “Did you know the flu kills about 36,000 people in the U.S. each year?”

            You can’t know that. It’s impossible to measure.

            And most of these people were not in a good shape, unlike the children victims of this dangerous vaccine.

          • That’s true. Sometimes it kills more, sometimes less. And there is a simple test the doctor does to tell you if you have the flu. It’s not impossible to measure. They just swab your throat at a doctor’s office and you can find out immediately if you have the flu, and even the strain! The wonders of modern medicine!

            You are just making up your own facts. Some flu strains kill young healthy people–not just people in “bad shape”.

            What child victims? Here are the REAL child victims…did you know that 90% of the children who died of the flu last year were NOT vaccinated? http://www.cdc.gov/flu/spotlights/children-flu-deaths.htm

          • “And there is a simple test the doctor does to tell you if you have the flu. It’s not impossible to measure. ”

            Hug? How many doctors do that?

            “They just swab your throat at a doctor’s office and you can find out immediately if you have the flu, and even the strain! The wonders of modern medicine!”

            You are an idiot. Why would anyone want to know that?

            Anyway, why would you go to the doctor when you have the flu????

            “You are just making up your own facts”

            No, you are, moron.

            You are the typical anti-science brainwashed idiot.

            “did you know that 90% of the children who died of the flu last year were NOT vaccinated?”

            So?

          • Why would I go to the doctor when I was sick? Are you for real? I will spell it out for you. I went to urgent care because I felt like I was going to die. The doctor wanted to know if it was an infection or a virus, so he swabbed my throat. If it was an infection, then I could take antibiotics, if not, then antibiotics would do no good. He found out I had Influenza type B, so he gave me Tamiflu which made me feel 70% better within 18 hours. Isn’t modern medicine amazing?

            Why would a doctor want to know if you have the flu? So they can report it to the CDC and let the public know how many people had the flu for that season. Oh, and also, so they can prescribe Tamiflu if need be. Make sense?

          • It’s worst than what I thought.

            When you have the flu you should just wait. Tamiflu makes almost no difference with the flu, and it makes some people see things.

            You are like the typical “natural news” follower, only more Big Pharma follower. Symmetrical.

          • Ahhh, yes, Dr. Abel. I should just wait until I possibly get worse and develop pneumonia. It didn’t make me see things, and it did make a difference. I was skeptical that it would work because I had read that study saying it’s not very effective, however, I was so sick that I was willing to try it out. So glad I did. I couldn’t believe how well it worked on me. No one gets a flu that lasts less than 72 hours. It really shortened the length of my illness.

            That study that claims Tamiflu does not work is not without critics, by the way: http://www.nbcnews.com/health/cold-flu/flu-experts-line-defend-tamiflu-against-new-study-n76116

            I’m not a “Big Pharma follower”. In fact, I avoid drugs at all costs. I only take them when absolutely necessary. When I came down with that nasty flu, I felt that the risks of taking Tamiflu were less than possibly dealing with flu complications. I had a friend almost die from the flu this year. She was on life support for 2 weeks. Don’t you agree that if you have to go to the hospital because you are near death, you will be supporting Big Pharma way more?

          • ” It didn’t make me see things”

            You are an idiot. Shut up.

            ” and it did make a difference.”

            You are an idiot. Shut up.

            “you will be supporting Big Pharma way more?”

            You are an idiot. Shut up.

          • YOUR words:

            “Hep b, flu, HPV vaccines have been linked with cases of autoimmune disorders or even death.

            Please give me reputable evidence that either of these is beneficial.”

            That is what I was responding to.

            And you said some vaccines are probably useless (like flu) and I debunked that.

            If you are saying that scientists are buffoons, then I guess there is no point in debating you. It’s just a waste of time.

          • So you can’t even parse a simple sentence.

            You debunked nothing, buffoon.

            Vaxxers are no scientists, they low lifes.

          • Typical response from a science denier. I ask for evidence, you show me nothing. I show you evidence and you call me a buffoon.

          • Which medical treatments don’t have to show their effectiveness compared to a placebo, ass0le?

    • The claim that Roundup and other glyphosate products are harmful is contentious. Moreover, even if it is sound, that does not mean that glyphosate-resistant GM crops are themselves inherently harmful, as anti-GM activists often insinuate. All it means is that there is no point in genetically modifying crops to be glyphosate-resistant.

    • Believe me, you’re not alone in your search
      As with you, excepting your one “slip” re GMOs, I’ve always tended towards giving science the benefit of the doubt. I must say though, while never having been “anti-GMO”, I’ve found that unlike, say, the case with vaccinations, when I have tried coming to grips with the issues involved with GMOs, and despite what I believe to my best efforts, I’ve had more trouble separating wheat from chaff than with any other science/public policy issue I’ve wrestled with.

    • Hi Ben, thanks for the post but neither of those sites touring/spinning this study is independent or reputable. GMOSeralini is in fact run in part by Seralini himself. The study quoted does not show any unusual dangers for glyphosate, despite what Seralini, whose last few major studies have been discredited by independent agencies, might want to claim. Glyphosate has been in use for dozens of years and is a comparatively benign pesticide (relative to other chemicals, including some of those used by organic farmers. Here is the most up to date independent analysis, by the US EPA: http://www.epa.gov/oppsrrd1/REDs/factsheets/0178fact.pdf

      I’ll post an analysis of Seralini’s latest “study” soon enough on GLP; the misrepresentations in the conclusion by him and co-authors are an embarrassment from a scientific perspective.

      • Thanks for the reply. Here is a group of reputable scientists who have criticized the retraction. Not being a scientist, I am tempted to conclude that there was mischief, since the retraction was apparently based only on the fact that the study was “inconclusive” and of course there were apparently powerful interests driving the retraction. In a system of free inquiry, further study is always preferable to censorship unless the criteria for retraction as set forth in the COPE guidelines were clearly met, which was not the case here. In any event, there is no harm in the inquiry being revived, the study re-published, and a free discussion pursued, and then letting the chips fall where they may. There is no objective reason to hold otherwise. http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/wp-content/uploads/122/2/ehp.1408106.pdf

  5. Why are people so afraid of any analysis that could force GMO’s company to simply do what they were supposed to do at the first place: insure us that their shit is safe. Even if Dr Seralini study was no good, what difference does it make? The GMO’s company do not make any study like the one that he performed. They make simple biased studies short and they don’t even publish them.. And people don’t see any problem with that. I do. Why Dr Seralini would have to justify himself while companies do not and force us to eat their unsafe crop. As long as it is not proven safe, we should not have to eat that.

      • I don’t know how to say this but I don’t care about this kind of talk. I only care about the truth. Every independant scientist that were appointed on GMO testing who found serious concerns were removed from the map sort of speak. Before they did their studies they were the best in their fields after that, they were ridiculed by the very same people that hired them.. Kind of weird..

  6. You guys crack me up. The script gets phonier and phonier. I really laughed at “I was so ashamed” for the ex-anti GMO post….I have read that script about 6 times by 4 different people. Brazeau and Entine are working overtime…Monsanto better be paying you for it…

  7. Jentle72, Monsanto does have a nasty track record that should be acknowledged and put in context as well. Let’s use agent orange tragedy as an example. Suppose an individual was an up and coming exec working on the negotiations with the U.S. military in 1965 and had a large enough authority and knowledge of the overheated stuff so as to be morally responsible. If that person was, say 35 then. He would be 84 now. In other words retired or dead. Are todays’ employees responsible? no, many weren’t even born yet. Did Monsanto actually spray the stuff? No. Are there newer examples of misbehavior? I have read of some. Never done a lot of research, though I believe there was a large waste site at a town in Alabama. Could the corporate culture that allowed such behavior still exist? Of course. Are the exmonsanto employees in regulatory agencies all working to assist Monsanto? Probably not. Ever heard of disgruntled ex-employees? Ever wonder they left Monsanto? Do I mistrust Monsanto spokespeople? Yes, but wwaaayy less than I mistrust an irs spokesperson. Hope this helps.

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