By Gregory Palast for The Observer/Guardian UK
An international consumer group is calling for world trade authorities to withdraw a key endorsement of Monsanto’s controversial growth hormone for cows in the wake of Observer revelations that the company had obtained access to confidential EU documents.
In a letter to the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (Jecfa), London-based Consumers’ International demanded the agency void its approval of the bovine growth hormone BST. The consumer watchdog, which participates on the scientific committee, charges that Monsanto’s privileged access to restricted documents ‘damaged the objectivity and credibility’ of the investigation of the hormone.
Jecfa reports to the Codex Commission, the world food safety arbitrator. In June this commission will vote on approving Monsanto’s drug for international trade.
Last week CI’s director, Julian Edward, accused a US Food and Drug Administration official on the panel, Dr Nick Weber, of professional misconduct and ‘breach of trust’ in passing copies of sensitive papers to Monsanto. The Observer identified Dr Weber as the source of the leak to Monsanto.
Weber has not responded to phone calls to his office, but the Jecfa panel’s chairman, Dr John Hermann, stated that, following the Observer story, Weber had admitted passing the confidential documents to Monsanto prior to a crucial meeting last February in Paris.
Herrman defended Weber, as he did another US Food and Drug Administration official in the controversy, Dr Margaret Miller. The Observer reported that Miller, a former Monsanto BST analyst, took part in the Jecfa review of the hormone.
Herrman concedes that Miller participated in the talks and drafted the committee’s report, but she excused herself from the actual vote approving the hormone as safe. Before heading Jecfa, Herrman, too, worked for the FDA.
A spokesman for the Consumer Policy Institute of New York decried ‘the disturbingly close relationship between FDA and Monsanto’. The Institute’s BST expert, Dr Michael Hansen, a Jecfa adviser, said there were indications from test data that milk from cows injected with the hormone may promote cancers in humans.
In Canada, the Senate Agriculture Committee last week demanded that Ottawa withdraw its seal of approval for BST following the Observer’s disclosure that a scientist representing Canada on the Jecfa panel had been suggested by Monsanto. Senator Mira Spivak of Manitoba said senators were stunned to find in their own investigation that ‘a registered Monsanto lobbyist was part of Canada’s delegation to Codex’.
The committee’s report recommended conducting new studies of BST. The senator said her committee ‘learned that BST files were stolen at Health Canada’ and that government scientists who had expressed doubts about Monsanto’s safety tests had been ‘muzzled after they began to talk publicly about the drug review’.
The Observer also reported that Monsanto had sued several hundred US farmers for ‘seed piracy’ – planting seeds taken from crops originally grown from Monsanto’s copyrighted genetically modified seeds.
Now a rival seed company has accused Monsanto of the same offence. Iowa-based Pioneer Hi-Bred International has just filed a suit in the US Federal Court accusing Monsanto of ‘genetic misappropriation’. A Hi-Bred spokesman told The Observer that Monsanto ‘buys our seeds’ and hunts for rare copies of proprietary genetic codes. Monsanto denies that it has done anything illegal.
Analysts say the suit by Hi-Bred, the leading US supplier of farm genetics, has major implications for Monsanto.
In India, meanwhile, Monsanto lost a key legal battle in its ongoing conflict with the subcontinent’s cotton farmers when India’s Supreme Court barred Monsanto from new test plantings until it completes a judicial review of human rights claims against Monsanto.
Farmers fear that the GM cotton, which incorporates an insecticide within its genetic code, could lead to the evolution of insects resistant to natural insecticides.
Gregory Palast’s column “Inside Corporate America” appears fortnightly in the
Observer’s Business section. Nominated Business Writer of the Year (UK Press
Association – 2000), Investigative Story of the Year (Industrial. Society – 1999), Financial Times David Thomas Prize (1998).