China launches probe after PhD dropout claims national GMO testing centre faked records

Agricultural ministry investigating former doctoral student’s claims that laboratory fabricated maintenance records for dozens of projects on genetically modified organisms

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2016, 10:43am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2016, 10:58pm

China’s Ministry of Agriculture began an investigation on Tuesday into claims by a dropout from a top doctoral programme that maintenance reports for a laboratory testing GMO products were made up.

The move came only days after Wei Jingliang, a former PhD student at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences’ Institute of Animal Sciences, said a national GMO testing centre administered by the institute had forged lab maintenance records for dozens of projects on genetically modified organisms.

“An investigation by the Ministry of Agriculture will start to verify work at the institute and the academy will actively cooperate,” the academy said in a statement posted on its website on Monday. “Severe punishment will be handed out if the claims are confirmed,” it added.

Earlier on Monday the Beijing Youth Daily reported that the inquiry hoped to publish its findings within two days.

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In an interview with the same newspaper, Wei claimed that the testing centre had doctored lab maintenance records ahead of a major inspection, and that he had electronic copies of the forged documents that related to 30 projects.

“Most GMO testing labs do various scientific research projects. Do they all strictly carry out book keeping and quality control? This is a huge safety loophole,” Wei wrote in a post on Zhihu.com, a Chinese question-and-answer forum.

Although not directly involving GMO products, the incident is expected to further shake public confidence in genetically modified food.

Wei, who worked at the lab during his doctoral studies, said on social media that the testing centre was due in July last year to have a three-yearly assessment of its quality control system and archives.

Several professors assigned him to get the documentation in order, which involved forging records on the lab’s environment, equipment and usage of testing agents.

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He said he was told at a meeting that paperwork had been doctored for the inspection three years earlier. None of the 30 people at the meeting, including many researchers and postgraduate students, raised any questions, he said.

Wei said he protested but his professor, Li Kui, insisted. He then spent less than a month forging the records.

Wei also said some doctoral and postdoctoral researchers who had long left the lab were still counted as staff, and master’s students were told to do tests in the departed researchers’ names.

He said the lab turned down all the testing requests – unless they were assigned by more senior units – to avoid mistakes.

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He was also instructed to endorse a GMO testing report that he suspected was concocted because he was not aware a test had been conducted.

Wei dropped out of the doctoral programme in April. He said he reported his claims to the academy’s postgraduate school and the institute in May, but was ignored. Instead, he was offered to be financially compensated for his dropping out of school.