A SCIENTIST who was condemned for saying that genetically modified foods could damage human health was backed last night by 20 scientists from around the world.
Jack Cunningham, the Cabinet "enforcer", promised that the Government would look "very thoroughly and very quickly" into the new claims about the effects of so-called "Frankenstein foods".
The scientist, Dr Arpad Pusztai, was forced out of his job at the Government-funded Rowett research institute in Aberdeen last August when he said that rats had suffered a reduction in brain size, liver damage and a weakening of their immune system after being fed GM potatoes for only 10 days. The development of the animals' kidney, thymus, spleen and gut was also affected.
Dr Pusztai told Granada TV's World in Action that he would not eat GM food. He said he found it "very, very unfair to use our fellow citizens as guinea pigs".
At the time, the institute described the results of Dr Pusztai's experiments as "very confused". The head of the institute, Prof Philip James, is the man behind the Government's proposals for a food standards agency and has been tipped as a leading candidate for its top job.
Vyvyan Howard, one of the scientists who is backing Dr Pusztai, told BBC's Newsnight last night: "We find that his data are sound. We think it would pass peer review and be published and we are at a loss to explain why the Rowett institute came to the conclusion it did."
Mr Howard, a toxipathologist at Liverpool University, said that the scientists from various countries who reviewed Dr Pusztai's work included specialists in genetic engineering and in medicine.
A Scottish Office immunologist is reported to have approved the methods used by Dr Pusztai's team.
Recent research on the same rats by Dr Stanley Ewen, a senior pathologist at Aberdeen University medical school, is also understood to validate Dr Pusztai's preliminary findings and suggest new possible health risks.
Dr Ewen found that rats fed the GM potatoes used in Dr Pusztai's experiments suffered from an enlarged stomach wall and an elongation of a section of the stomach after 10 days of feeding trials.
Mr Cunningham, who as Minister of Agriculture banned beef on the bone, told Newsnight that it would be "very surprising" if Dr Pusztai's work were "suddenly validated by another set of experiments".
But he said: "We shall certainly examine it very thoroughly and very quickly. We want to be aware of any new work and any new developments in what is a fast developing field."
Asked if he believed that GM foods were safe, Mr Cunningham said: "I think they can be safe. They have of course got to be thoroughly examined and properly licensed before they can ever be either grown or produced or brought into the food chain."
Last night Paul Tyler, the Liberal Democrat food spokesman, said he would ask the Commons agriculture select committee to investigate the affair. "These are not scaremongering amateurs but the premier Government research team in this field," he said. "Confusion over the original significance of these findings meant that the huge companies involved in genetic engineering were able to dismiss them as misleading.
"Now the reputation of Dr Pusztai is being reinstated and it is the novel foods which are back in the dock."
The Government's handling of the affair had been criticised earlier in the day when Mr Cunningham was accused of misleading MPs into believing that its official wildlife advisers had not recommended a three-year ban on GM crops.
Lady Young, chairman of English Nature, wrote to Tony Blair saying her organisation had called for a moratorium on all herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant crops so that research could be carried out into their impact on the countryside.
"We are very concerned about the effects that herbicide-tolerant crops would have on biodiversity," she said. "These varieties would give farmers the ability to eliminate wildlife in crops."
But in the Commons on Wednesday Mr Cunningham said William Hague, the Tory leader, had been "misleading and irresponsible" in suggesting that English Nature wanted "a moratorium on these matters".
Lady Young stressed that English Nature was not asking for a moratorium on the commercial release of all GM crops but only on those likely to damage the countryside. No crop likely to meet English Nature's criteria was expected to emerge for five or 10 years.
She said there might be a potential in some gene technology for producing "more environmentally friendly crops" and better food, but this needed further research and safeguards.
English Nature had been "taken aback" by the decision last week of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment to approve the release of herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape.
Lady Young said: "This type of genetic modification will make farming even more intensive and is undesirable in the British countryside where farming and wildlife must co-exist."
Tim Yeo, the shadow minister of agriculture, said Lady Young's letter was "devastating". He fully supported English Nature's call for a three-year ban. "It would in our view be outrageous to overrule this advice."
Friends of the Earth, the environmental pressure group, said the letter was a "devastating blow" to GM food promoters.
But Mr Cunningham last night made clear he stood by his original remarks. The Cabinet Office issued a statement in which he said he had quoted Lady Young "fairly and accurately" and he again accused Mr Hague of making an "incorrect" claim about English Nature's position.
The Consumers' Association called on Mr Blair yesterday to block sales of any new GM foods in shops and supermarkets until the Government had tightened the safeguards. In its toughest statement so far, the association said: "There is currently no way of knowing what the unintended health consequences of GM food ingredients will be and they cannot be monitored once they have entered the food chain."
But the association welcomed a Government decision to oppose the introduction of genetically modified cotton seeds into animal food in the European Union.
5 February 1999: Genetically altered corn is found in health food
4 February 1999: Hague calls for halt on 'Frankenstein foods'
23 January 1999: Genetic crop risk of 'super-weed'