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Bad Science Disease: Pesticide Pests & Agri Aggro

Government scientific advisers riddled with corporate connections

23rd March 2000 / Squall Download 4, May-June 2000, pg. 11.

A scientist with connections to a leading organophosphate (OP) producer, has been appointed to the 'independent' committee responsible for advising ministers on the safety of veterinary medicines.

Dr David Ray, of the Medical Research Council has been appointed to the Veterinary Products Committee (VPC), a quango populated by academics and farmers, whose job is to scrutinise the safety of animal medicines before licences are issued.

In 1995 Ray conducted research that discredited a theory, put forward by Somerset farmer, Mark Purdey, which linked BSE in cattle to the organophosphate phosmet. Ray's MRC Toxicology unit was, at the time, receiving funding from Zeneca, the makers of phosmet.

Joanna Wheatly, an organic dairy farmer who has campaigned against 'intellectual corruption' in the licensing of agricultural pesticides, said she was "appalled" by the appointment. She compared the difficulties faced by farmers campaigning against OP poisoning to those of Gulf War veterans. "We're trapped in an incestuous situation," she said.

Ray claims the interests he has with pesticide producers will not affect his judgement on the VPC. He admitted that Astra (now merged with Zeneca) still fund a research post in his unit, as do the pharmaceutical giant, Bayer. "There are two ways to get bad pesticides off the market, ban them, or get the companies to develop better pesticides," he said in justification of his industry links. When asked what other interests he has, Ray told SQUALL to check his declarations in the VPC Annual Report (he was formerly a member of the committee's Appraisal Panel for Human Suspected Adverse Reactions). He is listed as having no industry interests.

The VPC have an additional roll of monitoring suspected adverse reactions (to the chemicals they have approved), which, according to Wheatley, makes the committee both "judge and jury". "They're hardly likely to condemn a product, they themselves declared safe, as dangerous," she said.

The VPC's code of conduct says it's desirable that members have "an understanding" and "practical experience" of the pharmaceutical industry. Food Safety Minister Baroness Hayman, is reported to have told the committee that she recognised the need for 'experts' with links to industry. Less than a quarter of VPC members have no declared financial interest to the pharmaceutical industry. Professor Karl Linklater holds 16 commercial consultancies with pharmaceutical producers including Intervet, Novartis, Roche and Shering-Plough. (When approached about their funding sources, the Scottish Agricultural College - of whom Linklater is Principal and Chief Executive - refused to co-operate, citing 'commercial confidentiality'). Pfizer have two consultants on the committee as do Grampian Pharmaceuticals.

Hoechst, SmithKline Beecham, the Wellcome Trust and Merck, are all represented in the declarations of interests of VPC members. A similar picture is painted by the declarations of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) who advise the government on CJD and BSE, and the other committees set up under the Medicines Act to ensure pharmaceutical safety.

Richard Young of the Soil Association said: "The VPC remit is to promote the use of veterinary medicines. In reality we should be trying to use as little, not as much, as possible."

According to Young, the Thatcher government withdrew state funding for research into medicines that were nearing a marketable state. Leaving only industry funded research or no research at all. "There are very few academics who aren't in some way beholden to industry," he said.

*€ During the 1980's, when the academic/industry grip was weaker, a VPC sub-committee (JCAMS) attempted to scrutinise the merit of antibiotic livestock feed additives. When hindered by the VPC the committee's chair, James Howie, wrote to the then MAFF Minister, Peter Walker, who immediately disbanded the committee.


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