Tufts University 'apologises' over GM rice trial that used children, says Chinese media

While Tufts says it 'regrets' the study's deviations from certain protocols, Chinese state media reports the university has 'apologised' over the study

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 September, 2013, 12:20pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 September, 2013, 3:44am

Tufts University announced on Wednesday in an official statement that one of its researchers had broken ethical rules while conducting a study on genetically modified “Golden Rice” in China’s  Hunan province.

Curiously enough, while Tufts said it “regrets” the study’s deviations from certain protocols, Chinese state media reported that the university had “apologised” for the study.

The statement was issued a year after a study co-authored by Tufts-affiliated researchers was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last August. It sparked controversy in China over the ethics of using primary-school children to determine the nutritional value of the rice, leading to the sacking of three Chinese scientists.

The research was led by Dr Guangwen Tang, who heads the Carotenoids and Health Laboratory at Tufts. It was conducted to determine whether Golden Rice could be used to fight vitamin deficiencies in developing nations.

In the study, researchers fed Golden Rice to a trial group of 24 children, aged six to eight in a Hunan school, and tracked the responses in their Vitamin A levels. The study concluded that a single serving of Golden Rice could provide more than 50 per cent of the recommended daily intake of Vitamin A for the children.

“While the study data were validated and no health or safety concerns were identified, the research itself was found not to have been conducted in full compliance with IRB [Institutional Review Board] policy or federal regulations,” Tufts said in its statement.

Tufts also said researchers had cut corners obtaining reviews and approvals in China. And they also failed to explain adequately the genetically-modified nature of Golden Rice to relevant parties. 

Some parents at the school later told Chinese media they did not know they were in an experiment. They said they were under the impression the school had invited them to join a free lunch programme of rice, spinach and tofu instead.

“We regret that deviations from certain approved protocols and standards occurred,” said Tufts. The primary investigator will be banned from conducting research on humans for two years, it said.

The news of Tufts’ “apology” triggered heated discussion on China’s social media on Thursday, where opinions on genetically modified products were divided. Meanwhile, without access to the original document issued by Tufts, most readers seem convinced Tufts had, indeed, “apologised.”

“An apology isn’t enough,” many wrote, “we need to take legal action too.”

“How is this experiment different from what unit 731 did to the Chinese?,” another wrote, referring to the biological and chemical warfare research unit of the Japanese army during WWII.

But not all readers were angry.

“This research is completely safe and tries to determine the nutrition value of the rice,” another blogger wrote, “Have some common sense and don’t become an obstacle in China’s development of genetically-modified food.”

When asked to comment on the Chinese media's use of the word "apology", a public relations spokeswoman representing Tufts told that: "I don't think this is something we are able to comment on as we are not experts on the Chinese language."

Read more SCMP China Insider stories written by Amy Li or follow her on Twitter