China officials to probe study that fed golden rice to Hunan primary pupils

Task force will examine US-led study in which children may have been fed modified rice

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 September, 2012, 4:21am

Mainland health authorities launched an investigation into a reportedly trial of genetically modified rice on Hunan primary- school children, state media reported yesterday, as new questions arose about how the American-led study was conducted.

The Chinese Centre For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it would appoint a task force to review the study, in which nearly two dozen pupils in Hengyang , aged six to eight, were reportedly fed beta-carotene-rich rice to improve their vitamin A content. Controversy over the scientific ethics of the study, which was led by a faculty member from Tufts University in Boston and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last month, erupted earlier this week.

But whether the children were indeed fed with the GM rice is unclear; at least three mainland scientists named as co-authors of the study, including CDC employees, deny their involvement.

The research by Dr Guangwen Tang, who heads the Carotenoids and Health Laboratory at Tufts, was conducted to determine whether the genetically modified rice, called golden rice, could be used to fight vitamin deficiency in developing nations.

The study at Jiangkou Central Primary School reported encouraging results, concluding that vitamin A levels in 23 children who were fed the rice matched those of pupils given beta-carotene-rich oil capsules and exceeded those fed spinach. The paper said that parents and pupils consented to the study.

The Hunan and Hengyang authorities have denied that any genetically modified food was used in the trial. He Zhongqiu , the school's headmaster in 2008 but now retired, told the People's Daily that all parents with children in the study had provided written consent.

But the Beijing News reported yesterday that some parents said they did not know they were in an experiment when the school asked them to join a programme to provide their children a free lunch of rice, spinach and tofu.

Parents said they signed up because it could save them 500 yuan (HK$600) on lunches each semester. But some parents later withdrew because of a requirement that their children undergo blood tests three times a month, the report said.

On Wednesday, the Chinese CDC released a statement saying that Yin Shian , who was listed as an author on the study, had received, read and approved the paper for publication. But Yin insisted he was not aware that the golden rice was used.

The agency said Yin simultaneously collected samples for vitamin A research funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China in Hengyang, as well as a joint project between Tufts and the Zhejiang Provincial Academy of Medical Science.

Tufts University vowed a "thorough review" and said it was "deeply concerned by recent allegations about research conducted in China in 2008".