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Dec 2 2013

What’s up with the retraction of the Séralini feeding-GMO-corn-to-rats study?

The big news over the weekend was that the journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, announced that it is retracting the paper it published last year by Séralini et al.

The Séralini paper claimed that feeding genetically modified corn to female rats, with or without added Roundup, caused them to develop more mammary tumors than rats that were not fed GMO corn.

As I discussed in a post at the time, I had my doubts about the scientific quality of the Séralini study.  The findings were based on a small number of animals, were not dose-dependent and failed to exclude the possibility that they could have occurred by chance.

In response to readers’ queries about my critique of the science, I added a clarification:

I very much favor research on this difficult question.   There are enough questions about this study to suggest the need for repeating it, or something like it, under carefully controlled conditions.

In science, repeating someone else’s study is common practice.  Retracting a published paper is not. The editors of Food and Chemical Technology say they are retracting the paper because its findings are inconclusive.

The low number of animals had been identified as a cause for concern during the initial review process, but the peer-review decision ultimately weighed that the work still had merit despite this limitation.  A more in-depth look at the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions can be reached with this small sample size regarding the role of either NK603 or glyphosate in regards to overall mortality or tumor incidence. Given the known high incidence of tumors in the Sprague-Dawley rat, normal variability cannot be excluded as the cause of the higher mortality and incidence observed in the treated groups.

Hello.  Where were they during the peer review process?  Editors decide whether papers get published.  The editors chose to publish the study, even though they had just published a meta-analysis coming to the opposite conclusion: “GM plants are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and can be safely used in food and feed.”

Now, in response to a barrage of criticism (see letters accompanying the online version of the Séralini study), the editors have given its authors an ultimatum: withdraw the paper (which Séralini says he will not do), or they will retract it.

But the editor wrote Séralini:

Unequivocally, the Editor-in-Chief found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data.

Then how come the retraction?  Guidelines for retracting journal articles published by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) say:

 Journal editors should consider retracting a publication if:

  • They have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabri­cation) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error)
  • The findings have previously been published elsewhere without proper crossreferencing, permission or justification (i.e. cases of redundant publication)
  • It constitutes plagiarism
  • It reports unethical research

The Séralini paper may be unreliable, but that should have been obvious to the peer reviewers and the journal’s editors.  Otherwise, the paper does not fit any of the established criteria for retraction.

The anti-GMO group, GM Watch, points out that Food and Chemical Technology is a member of COPE.  On this basis, it says the journal’s retraction of the study is ”illicit, unscientific, and unethical.”  It has a point.

This is a mess, with the journal’s editors clearly at fault.  At this point, they should:

  • Admit that the journal’s peer review—and editorial—processes are deeply flawed.
  • State that the journal never should have accepted the paper in the first place.
  • Announce immediate steps to correct the flawed review processes.
  • Apologize to Séralini et al. for having caved in to pressure and blaming him, rather than themselves, for the mess.
  • Publish all documentation about the paper on the journal’s website.
  • Call on the scientific community to repeat the Séralini study with populations of rats large enough to permit statistical analyses of the results.

About the documentation:

  • Séralini, according to a scathing account of this affair in Forbes, plans to sue Food and Chemical Technology for breach of protocol.  The Forbes piece finds ”

    The entire episode, including the oddly worded retraction statement…a black eye for the beleaguered journal and Elsevier [the publisher].”

  • GM Watch posted the “oddly-worded-retraction” letter (from the editor to Séralini) but then took it down.  While the link was still active, I took a screenshot.  I wish I’d copied the whole thing.  If anyone knows where to it, please send the link.

Screenshot 2013-11-28 10.29.58

Additions

  • Thanks to a reader for sending the entire letter from editor Hayes to Séralini.
  • Another reader sent this article suggesting that appointment of a Monsanto-connected editor to the journal may have led to the retraction.
Aug 17 2012

To ponder over the weekend: What to do about corn and biofuels

Think about this over the weekend.

Among the other consequences of the current drought—along with the ruin of this year’s corn crop—is a complicated political battle over who gets the corn.

The players:

  • Corn producers: Want high prices.  Don’t care whether meat or ethanol producers get the corn.  Note: Many own their own ethanol refineries.
  • Meat producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Do not want corn grown for ethanol.  Want the ethanol quota waived.
  • Ethanol producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Want to keep the quota.
  • International aid agencies: Want corn to be grown for food and feed, not fuel.  Want the ethanol quota waived.

The ethanol quota:

Three big industries—corn agribusiness, industrial meat, ethanol—plus international agencies have a stake in the U.S. corn crop.

How should the Obama administration handle this?

  • Waive the ethanol quota?
  • Keep the ethanol quota?
  • Do nothing?
  • Do something else?  If so, what?
May 14 2012

GM crops in crisis: Roundup-resistant “superweeds”

I was a member of the FDA Food Advisory Committee when the agency approved production of genetically modified foods in the early 1990s.

At the time, critics repeatedly warned that widespread planting of GM crops modified to resist Monsanto’s weed-killer, Roundup, were highly likely to select for “superweeds” that could withstand treatment with Roundup.

I wrote about this problem in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety.  I added this update to the 2010 edition:

Late in 2004, weeds resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup began appearing in GM plantings in Georgia and soon spread to other Southern states.  By 2009, more than one hundred thousand acres in Georgia were infested with Roundup-resistant pigweed.  Planters were advised to apply multiple herbicides, thereby defeating the point of Roundup: to reduce chemical applications.

Today, the idea that planting of GM crops is “widespread” is an understatement.

So, according to Reuters, is Roundup resistance.

Weed resistance has spread to more than 12 million U.S. acres and primarily afflicts key agricultural areas in the U.S. Southeast and the corn and soybean growing areas of the Midwest.

Many of the worst weeds, some of which grow more than six feet and can sharply reduce crop yields, have become resistant to the popular glyphosate-based weed-killer Roundup, as well as other common herbicides.

This is not a trivial problem.  As the Ottawa Citizen explains,

The resilience of nature is evident across almost five million hectares of superweed-infested U.S. farmland. Some runaway weeds in the southern U.S. are said to be big enough to stop combines dead in their tracks.

How is the chemical industry responding to this threat?  Zap it harder!

The industry is pressing the U.S. and Canadian governments to approve GM corn engineered to resist 2,4-D.

Remember 2,4-D?   It was the principal ingredient in Agent Orange, the defoliant used during the Vietnam War.  Although the health problems it caused have been attributed to contamination with dioxin, the uncontaminated chemical has also been associated with illness in some studies (the Wikipedia entry has references).

The chemical industry maintains that 2,4-D is safe at current usage levels.  Maybe, but Ontario bans its use on lawns, gardens, and in school yards and parks.  Weeds resistant to 2,4-D have been identified since the 1950s.

Is pouring more toxic herbicides on food crops a good idea?  These chemicals cannot be healthy for farmworkers or for soil or groundwater.

Organic agriculture anyone?

Addition: Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center at Iowa State and organic farmer says in an e-mail:

The other issue that has weed scientists concerned is the fact that 2-4-D is known to be much more invasive than many other herbicides—it can drift in the air for long periods of time and land on many unintended crops.

2-4-D has been identified as the main cause for destroying the grape industry in Iowa—in the 1940′s Iowa was the 4th largest grape producing state in the nation, and then was virtually reduced to zero.

Clearly if 2-4-D is going to be the “answer” to Roundup Ready resistance it will now be used in much larger quantities than in the 1950′s and is not only likely to destroy the rebounding grape production (I think some 200 acres now) and the 8 wineries in Iowa, but will make it extremely difficult to grow vegetables, which will not be good news for the burgeoning CSA/farmers Market industry that has emerged in recent years.

Sep 23 2011

Weekend reading: food politics reports

The U.S. Public Interest Group (USPIRG) has a new report out on the effects of farm subsidies on obesity: Apples to Twinkies: Comparing Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food.  If you want people to eat more fruits and vegetables and less junk food, fixing the subsidy patterns might be a good place to begin.

New England Complex Systems Institute (whatever that might be) has an interesting explanation of the recent rise in world food prices: The Food Crises: A Quantitative Model of Food Prices Including Speculators and Ethanol Conversion.
The authors’ explanation: commodity speculation and growing corn for ethanol fully account for the rise in prices.  The remedy seems obvious, no?

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has just funded a report on the soft drink industry from the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN), a project of Public Health Law & Policy (PHLP): Breaking Down the Chain: A Guide to the Soft Drink Industry.  This is about the industry itself, but also what it is doing to market its products here, there, and everywhere.  This is required reading for anyone interested in public health measures to reduce consumption of sugary drinks.

Sep 21 2011

Corn Refiners Association to FDA: we will call HFCS “corn sugar” whether you like it or not

 I worry a lot about the ability of the FDA to set limits on the excess marketing practices of food companies.  The latest cause for worry is the seemingly trivial fuss over what to call High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).

HFCS is not especially high in fructose (its fructose content is about the same as that of table sugar) but the term has gotten a bad reputation and food companies have begun to replace this sweetener with table sugar.

The Corn Refiners Association, the trade association that protects the interests of the makers of HFCS thinks it can solve that problem by getting the FDA to allow a name change from HFCS to “corn sugar” (see my previous comments on this issue).  The FDA has this request under consideration. 

In the meantime, the Corn Refiners are using “corn sugar” in advertisements on two websites, cornsugar.com and sweetsurprise.com.

Last week, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the FDA is taking a dim view of this behavior.   In a letter seen by the AP (but which I cannot find on the FDA website), the FDA has asked the Corn Refiners to cease and desist using “corn sugar” until the term receives regulatory approval.  

According to the AP account, which I have been unable to verify, the FDA:

Has no regulatory control over the corn association’s advertising because it is not selling a product but promoting an industry. The federal agency can prosecute companies that incorrectly label ingredients and [FDA official Barbara] Schneeman wrote that the FDA may launch enforcement action against food companies listing high fructose corn syrup as “corn sugar.”

The AP also said that internal FDA documents “indicate high-level skepticism” over the proposed name change. 

This, no doubt, is because “corn sugar” already exists as a regulatory term for dextrose which, in turn, is another name for the sugar, glucose, derived from corn. 

The AP says:

Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, wrote in an internal email that a previous attempt by the corn industry to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to just “corn syrup” was misleading, could have robbed consumers of important information and would invite ridicule.  “It would be affirmatively misleading to change the name of the ingredient after all this time, especially in light of the controversy surrounding it,” Taylor told colleagues in an email dated March 15, 2010.

Changing the name of HFCS to corn sugar is about marketing, not public health. If the FDA decides to approve the change, it will not alter the fact that about 60 pounds each of HFCS and table sugar are available per capita per year, and that Americans would be a lot healthier consuming a lot less of either one.

Jan 6 2011

Wikileaks plays food politics: US vs. EU agbiotech policies

I’m still catching up on what happened during the weeks I was out of Internet contact, so I’ve only just heard about the Wikileaked diplomatic cable about U.S. food biotechnology policies.

In December 2007, the U.S. Ambassador to France, Craig Robert Stapleton, wrote the White House to demand retaliation against European Union countries that refused to allow import of genetically modified (GM) corn from the United States.

Ambassador Stapleton’s confidential memo of December 14, 2007  explained that the French government was attempting to

circumvent science-based decisions in favor of an assessment of the “common interest”…. Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices.  In fact, the pro-biotech side in France — including within the farm union — have told us retaliation is the only way to begin to begin to turn this issue in France.

…France’s new “High Authority” on agricultural biotech is designed to roll back established science-based decision making….The draft biotech law submitted to the National Assembly and
the Senate for urgent consideration…would make farmers and seed companies legally liable for pollen drift and sets the stage for inordinately large cropping distances. The publication of a registry identifying cultivation of GMOs at the parcel level may be the most significant measure given the propensity for activists to destroy GMO crops in the field.

The Ambassador’s recommendation?

Country team Paris recommends that we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU….

Retaliation?  Against friends?  Even the Bush administration knew better.  The Obama administration also has not taken this advice.

The product at issue was a variety of Monsanto’s GM corn.   Could Monsanto have had anything to do with the Ambassador’s pointed interest in this matter?  Wikileaks: any chance for more documents on this matter?

Sep 20 2010

One more time: corn sugar chemistry

Thanks to alert reader Glen for pointing out that the FDA already has a regulation for Corn Sugar in the Code of Federal Regulations, under food substances Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).  CFR Section 184.1857 reads:

(a) corn sugar (C6H12O6, CAS Reg. No. 50-99-7), commonly called D-glucose or dextrose, is the chemical [alpha]-D-glucopyranose. It occurs as the anhydrous or the monohydrate form and is produced by the complete hydrolysis of corn starch with safe and suitable acids or enzymes, followed by refinement and crystallization from the resulting hydrolysate.

(b) The ingredient meets the specifications of the Food Chemicals Codex, 3d Ed. (1981), pp. 97-98 under the heading “Dextrose….”

(c) In accordance with 184.1(b)(1), the ingredient is used in food with no limitation other than current good manufacturing practice.

The Corn Refiners have just petitioned the FDA to be allowed to use the name Corn Sugar to apply to both glucose/dextrose and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).  But the existing definition seems to exclude HFCS.  While HFCS is about half glucose, it is also about half fructose, and its manufacture from corn starch requires one more enzyme.

A reminder about sugar chemistry:

  • Glucose is the sugar in blood, and dextrose is the name given to glucose produced from corn but biochemically they are identical.
  • Fructose is the principal sugar in fruit.  In fruit, it raises no issues because it is accompanied by nutrients and fiber.
  • Sucrose is table sugar.  It is a double sugar, containing one part each of glucose (50%) and fructose (50%), chemically bound together.  Enzymes in the intestine quickly and efficiently split sucrose into glucose and fructose, which are absorbed into the body as single sugars.
  • HFCS is made from corn starch.  It contains roughly equivalent amounts of glucose (45 to 58%) and fructose (42 to 55%).

HFCS raises several issues, health and otherwise:

  • Quantity: the U.S. food supply provides to every American (all ages) about 60 pounds of sucrose and another 60 pounds of HFCS each year.  This is way more than is good for health.  Sugars of any kind provide calories but no nutrients.
  • Fructose: increasing evidence suggests that the metabolism of fructose–which differs from that of glucose–is associated with abnormalities.  This means that it is best to reduce intake of fructose from table sugar as well as HFCS.
  • Farm subsidies: these go to large corn producers and have kept down the cost of HFCS relative to that of sucrose.  The use of corn to make ethanol has raised the relative price of HFCS.
  • Genetic modification: Most corn grown in the United States is genetically modified to resist insects or herbicides.

From a health standpoint, it makes no difference whether the sweetener is sucrose or HFCS.

As for agave sugar as a substitute: it can have much higher concentrations of fructose than either sucrose or HFCS but its labels do not give percentages so you have no way to know how much.

Given all this, what’s your guess about what the FDA will decide?

Sep 14 2010

Corn Refiners ask FDA to replace “HFCS” with “Corn Sugar”

The Corn Refiners Association is asking the FDA to allow a change in the name of their embattled sweetener from High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) to Corn Sugar.

Of course they want this change.  HFCS is the new trans fat.  Everyone thinks HFCS is poison.

For the record once again, HFCS is not poison.  It is just a mixture of glucose and fructose in almost the same proportions as table sugar, sucrose.

Mind you, I am not fond of the idea that Americans use 60 pounds of corn sweeteners per capita per year and another 60 pounds of table sugar, and I am not particularly eager to help the Corn Refiners sell more of their stuff.

But you can understand the Corn Refiners’ pain: food companies are getting rid of HFCS as fast as they can and replacing it with table sugar.

This move is driven not only by bad press, but also by the fact that the price differential has all but disappeared.  HFCS started out at one-third the cost of table sugar.  Growing corn to make alcohol changed all that.

Let’s give the Corn Refiners credit for calling a sugar a sugar.  I would prefer Corn Sugars (plural) to indicate that it is a mixture of glucose and fructose.  But as long as they don’t call it “natural,” the change is OK with me.

But I’m wondering if it’s too late.  Maybe anything with the word “corn” in it will be enough to turn people off?  According to the Associated Press, the Corn Refiners are already using Corn Sugar in their advertising, so we will soon find out.

Your thoughts?

Additional historical note: Thanks to a reader, candyprofessor.com, who is evidently a fount of information about such things, for this enlightening tidbit:

In the early 1900s, what we call “corn syrup” was sold as “glucose,” the chemical name for the type of sugar derived from corn starches. Food reformers pointed to the “glucose” in candy and claimed that candy was poisoned with “glue.”  So the corn producers lobbied to have “glucose” renamed “corn syrup.” Sounds like we’re coming around again full circle…now “corn syrup” is poison!

Updates, September 15: Tara Parker-Pope writes about this in the New York Times (and quotes me).  So does Michele Simon on her blog.  As usual, Simon says it like it is:

As a result of this demonizing, we are now in the ridiculous situation where food companies are falling over each other to remove HFCS from their products, slap on a natural label, and get brownie points for helping Americans eat better….Only Big Food would find a way to make a product full of refined white sugar (which at one time was also demonized) seem like a healthy alternative. It’s like I always say, the food industry is very good at taking criticism and turning it into a marketing opportunity.

How, I wonder, will the Corn Refiners manage this one?  Not so easily, judging from readers’ comments.

Update, September 16: Fo0dNavigator.com reports that more than half of Americans surveyed will not buy products with HFCS.  Market researchers are advising food companies to get rid of it.

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