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Journal Retracts Controversial GMO Study

A controversial study suggesting that rats fed genetically modified corn were more likely to develop cancer has been retracted by the scientific journal that first published it. The study had been cited by opponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as evidence of their harm, but it was heavily criticized in the scientific community for failing to meet scientific standards.

The study, known as the Séralini study after French lead author Gilles-Éric Séralini, was originally published in the November 2012 edition of Food and Chemical Toxicology to a very critical reception. Elsevier, the Massachusetts-based publisher of the journal, announced the retraction after a lengthy investigation into the article’s data and the peer-review process behind its publication.

Upon publication of the study, the journal received numerous letters expressing concern over the validity of the study and its use of animals, as well as allegations of fraud. The European Food Safety Authority stated that the study lacked scientific merit. Within weeks, 700 scientists had signed a petition for the authors to release all of their raw data, which they ultimately did with the publishers of the journal.

The publisher’s year-long investigation found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of data, but did find “a legitimate cause for concern regarding both the number of animals in each study group and the particular strain selected,” according to a publisher statement.

Critics said that no significant conclusions could be drawn from the study because it only used 20 rats in each group. The publisher said the sample size was a concern during the original peer-review process, but that the peer review ultimately determined the study still had scientific merit.

A more in-depth review of the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions could be drawn from the small sample size, the publisher said. In addition, the breed of rat used in the study is known to have a high incidence of tumors, to the point that natural variability could explain the higher numbers of tumors among the GMO-fed group. (As many as 70 percent of males and 87 percent of female rats get cancer naturally, according to evolutionary biologist and blogger PZ Myers.)

“Ultimately, the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication for Food and Chemical Toxicology,” the publisher’s statement concluded.

The move to retract the study drew both instant praise and criticism to the journal. The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) called the retraction “a travesty of science” that appeared to be “a bow to industry.”

ENSSER said that the study was a chronic toxicity study and not a full-scale carcinogenicity study, meaning that the Séralini study did not set out to draw any definite conclusions, but instead simply aimed to report observations. The study also did not specifically set out to find tumors, but found an increased rate of tumors regardless, ENSSER said.

“The biochemical data confirm the toxic effects, such as those on liver and kidney, which are serious enough by themselves,” ENSSER said. “The tumours and mortality rates are observations which need to be confirmed by a specific carcinogenicity study with higher numbers of rats; in view of public food safety, it is not wise to simply ignore them.”

Anti-biotech organization GMWatch called the retraction “illicit, unscientific, and unethical” in a statement. The retraction, they said, violates the publishing guidelines of the Committee on Publications Ethics, of which the journal is a member.

Those publishing guidelines give only three circumstances under which a journal should retract a study:

  • Clear evidence that the findings are unreliable due to misconduct (e.g., data fabrication) or honest error
  • Plagiarism or redundant publication
  • Unethical research

“Numerous published scientific papers contain inconclusive findings, which are often mixed in with findings that can be presented with more certainty,” the group stated. “It is for future researchers to build on the findings and refine scientific understanding of any uncertainties.”

Others applauded the retraction, saying that the study should never have been published in the first place.

“It was clear from even a superficial reading that this paper was not fit for publication, and in this instance the peer review process did not work properly,” wrote David Spiegelhalter, professor at the University of Cambridge.

PZ Myers said that scientists have been appalled by the study’s shoddy protocol.

“Would you believe that in a study with a control group and multiple experimental groups fed on GMO corn, the authors did not use any statistical tests to tell if there was a significant difference between any of the groups? Let that sink in,” Myers wrote.

Séralini himself has said that he is contemplating suing the journal.

© Food Safety News
  • Vierotchka

    I wonder how much it was paid to do so…

    • Loren Eaton

      What if it was nothing??

  • Marge Mullen

    The best advice is to not eat any GMO goods.

    • Dr_Otter

      Why? Do you have hard facts, or are you just another “Chicken Little” squawking around the barnyard?

      • Calamity

        Tobacco was “proven” to be safe and therapeutic. Asbestos was “proven ” to be safe. Thalidomide was “proven” to be safe. All proven by corporate scientists and backed up by corporate paid doctors in white coats and very impressive clipboards. YOU prove it IS safe. I want tests run by independent funded labs. Dozens of them from around the world. An uncle died or Agent Orange. DDT is still out there. YOU prove this GMO stuff doesn’t destroy intestinal tracts BEFORE you put it out there. Until then, you get nothing No money. No nice words. No “It could be okay. No one’s said it’s bad and proven it!”. NOTHING. You don’t play with my life for your profits.

    • Oginikwe

      Another study finds GMO corn to be highly toxic (Digital Journal) 4/18/2013: http://digitaljournal.com/article/348260

      GM food off the menu in Parliament’s restaurants despite ministers telling the public to drop their opposition (Daily Mail) 6/21/2013: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2345937/GM-food-menu-Parliaments-restaurant-despite-ministers-telling-public-drop-opposition.html#ixzz2m4FCw7iR

  • Bob

    I see 2 issues here. One if better studies do come along that give support to this bad one, how much credibility do they lose with this bad press out there? Second, if long term studies show that GMOs can be utilized with minimal negative effects, how many see the retraction versus the amount of press that the initial publication received? Vaccinations causing autism has been holding on long after the study was shown to be rubbish.

    • Loren Eaton

      Good post, but I read something this morning that you should consider. The rat chow that is fed to lab rats in the US as a part of their normal diet ALREADY has GM ingredients. And the baseline rate of tumor formation is the SAME as in European rats who are fed non-GM chow.

      • Calamity

        Where did you get that? I read everything I can on the subject and I’ve never seen any reference to that.

        • Loren Eaton

          I’ll see if I can find that. It’s been 3-4 days.

  • crs

    Such a waste of time to focus on GMO. We’ve got antibiotic resistance, lousy food hygiene and unsafe water to worry about, let alone hunger in many parts of the world. Why not focus all that advocacy energy on real issues instead of wasting it on GMO?

    • Emily Nelson

      Because we can walk and chew gum at the same time??

  • N. Kennedy

    For the umpteenth time, IT WAS NOT A CARCINOGICITY STUDY, IT WAS A TOXICITY STUDY. It passed muster as a toxicology study. And was a much needed long-term one at that.

    Instead, the debate was obfuscated by people (many, shamefully, identifing as either scientists or “pro-science”) criticizing the study for inadequacies as a carcinogicity study. For example, even in the article above we have it –

    “In addition, the breed of rat used in the study is known to have a high incidence of tumors, to the point that natural variability could explain the higher numbers of tumors among the GMO-fed group. (As many as 70 percent of males and 87 percent of female rats get cancer naturally, according to evolutionary biologist and blogger PZ Myers.)”

    This has no place in the reporting of the issues at hand – that of the treatment of the adequacy or otherwise of a toxicity study. It just muddies the water.

    The ENSSER statment explains the issue precisely;
    http://www.ensser.org/democratising-science-decision-making/ensser-comments-on-the-retraction-of-the-seralini-et-al-2012-study/

    In short, it was a toxicity study. It was carried out correctly, in all respects. It is a prompt that further examination is needed of the toxic effects of maize genetically engineered to tolerate RoundUp(TM) with the expected residues of RoundUp(TM) it is engineered to withstand – preferably by someone who is not beholden to the industry.
    Not a “shoot-the-messenger” response.

    This was a black day for science. Shame on those involved.

  • Oginikwe

    Controversial Seralini GMO-rats paper to be retracted (Retraction Watch) 11/28/2013: http://retractionwatch.com/2013/11/28/controversial-seralini-gmo-rats-paper-to-be-retracted/

    “We request to FCT the retractation of the Monsanto study on the same GMO, which has been used for its authorization. If FCT persists in its decision to retract our own study, CRIIGEN would attack with lawyers, including in the USA, to require financial compensation for the huge damages to our group. We question the european authorities to re-rexamine the studies used to authorize GMOs and pesticides, because the GMO and other contaminants presence in control feed as
    well as in the reference or historical data invalidate these studies.

    The comments on this article are also very interesting.

  • Oginikwe

    Yeah? Why this then?

    Seralini validated by new EFSA guidelines on long-term GMO experiments (GM Watch) 7/31/2013: http://www.gmwatch.org/index.php/news/archive/2013/14882-seralini-validated-by-new-efsa-guidelines-on-long-term-gmo-experiments

  • landisr

    James, could you investigate whether there were any changes to the editorial leadership of the journal in the period after publication? That is not mentioned in your article, but it’s something that critics of the retraction are citing as a cause.

  • Calamity

    I think most have missed the point. GMO’s are largely untested. The song
    and dance we get from Monsanto and the ex-Monsanto plants in the FDA
    are that “they’re safe: We tested them:trust us” . The same song and
    dance as big tobacco. the same around Thalidomide. The same about
    asbestos.The same about all those highly profitable products that we now
    know kill us by the tens of thousands.Folks, there is national
    healthcare. It has to be paid by us all. Get fat: we pay for it. Get
    diabetes: we pay for it. THEY introduce untested and unsafe foods: we
    pay, big time. They get the profits and we all pay in money and lives.
    50% of all stocks in the country are owned by 1% of the people. That’s
    1% getting the profits and calling the shots. You can bet they eat
    organic.