ISIS Report 26/07/05
Cover-up over GM DNA in milk
Syngenta’s GM maize linked to dead cows linked to GM DNA in milk and
scientist involved in what appears to be a major cover-up on behalf of big dairy
producer. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
A fully referenced
version of this article is posted on ISIS members’ website. Details
Campaign against GM animal feed
Greenpeace Germany began campaigning against GM animal feed in March 2005.
Their main target is Mueller, one of Germany’s biggest dairy producers
and also number one in Britain in yogurt sales. Greenpeace exposed Mueller’s
use of GM soya to feed their dairy cows, which Mueller does not deny. But the
company tried to stop Greenpeace’s campaign, and especially the use of
the term “GE-milk” through the law court. The company claims it
is scientifically demonstrated that no GM DNA could transfer into the milk,
and produced a statement signed by six German scientists with the title, No
transfer of genetically modified components from animal feed to milk. Greenpeace
contacted me for help in producing a counter-statement. The counter-statement,
Transfer of genetically modified DNA from animal feed to milk cannot be ruled
out, and is a cause for concern, was eventually signed by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Dr.
Arpad Pusztai, Dr. Susan Bardocz, Prof. Joe Cummins and Prof. Peter Saunders
on behalf of the Independent Science Panel (www.indsp.org).
On 5 July 2005, the court of Cologne decided in favour of Greenpeace, refusing
to grant Mueller an injunction. The court stated that as since Mueller is using
genetically modified plants for animal feed, the products are connected with
genetic engineering and therefore the term GE-milk is perfectly justified. Mueller
claimed that GM-DNA fragments are not present in milk, but Greenpeace countered
by saying it was not yet scientifically decided.
“The report of the ISP was vital to support our arguments!” says
Greenpeace activist Ulricke Brendel. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the matter. Mueller
has filed a new case against Greenpeace, going for the highest court in Germany,
to prevent Greenpeace from using the term, “GE-milk”, and also asking
for €500 000 in damage compensation.
“For the next 3 to 5 years, that is as long it might take, we will keep
arguing the case,” Ulricke added.
So what’s the current status of the evidence? Is there or is there not
GM-DNA in milk?
Unpublished evidence kept under lock and key
There are several published studies on the transfer of genetically modified
(GM) DNA from animal feed to milk, all of them methodologically flawed; nevertheless
they indicate that it is possible for DNA from GM feed to transfer to milk.
And this is confirmed in an unpublished study from the Weihenstephen Institute
of Physiology and the Technical University of Munich.
Astonishingly, the lead author of the unpublished study from Weihenstephen Institute,
which found positive evidence of GM DNA in milk - Prof. Rolf Espanier - is also
the lead author of the statement on behalf of the company Mueller, claiming
there is no transfer of genetically modified components from animal feed to
Furthermore, that unpublished study was done on milk collected from dairy cows
in a farm in Hesse Germany where, between 2000 and 2001, 12 cows died after
eating Syngenta’s GM maize Bt 176 (Cow ate GM maize and died,
SiS 21). No proper autopsies were carried out; while this crucial study dated
20 October 2000 remained under lock and key for more than three years before
it was leaked to Greenpeace .
A handful of studies
The first study in the laboratories of Einspanier, Jahreis and Falchowsky
 detected “faint signals” of the abundant plant chloroplast DNA
in milk, but not the GM DNA. However, the limit of detection, i.e., the sensitivity
of the detection method, was not reported. This would involve spiking the milk
with increasing amounts of DNA from the GM feed until a positive signal is obtained.
A second study in another laboratory  failed to detect any GM DNA in milk.
But the limit of detection was 30 ng GM soya DNA added to the milk, which is
equivalent to 16 200 copies of the GM soya genome, or the same number of copies
of the GM DNA insert, assuming there is a single insert in the genome. This
is unacceptably high compared to the standard limit of detection of 10 copies
or less; and it indicates that the method used was far from sensitive enough.
A follow-up investigation  did detect plant chloroplast DNA, but not the
GM DNA in milk. Chloroplast DNA outnumbers GM DNA by up to 50 000 copies to
1. The limit of detection in this study was still unacceptably high; it required
the presence of 2 700 copies of the GM soya genome and 602 copies of the GM
maize genome in 330 microlitres (about three drops) of milk. Another limitation
of these studies was that the feeding trials [2, 3] were of short duration,
lasting only several weeks.
The fourth published study  established the limit of detection as between
5 and 10 genomic copies of the GM DNA, but not by adding the GM plant DNA to
milk, which is necessary, as inhibitors of the detection reaction are often
present. Nevertheless these researchers found plant chloroplast DNA in high
proportions, possibly all, of the milk samples from dairy cows: 86% positives
while the rest were ‘indeterminate’. They claim to have found “no
statistically significant” presence of GM DNA in milk. No information
on the length of the feeding trial(s) was given.
Positive evidence for the transfer of GM DNA into milk was presented in the
unpublished report  from Weihenstephen Institute referred to earlier. Two
milk samples were analysed, and in both of them, positive signals for GM DNA
These studies used a wider range of probes for different plant DNA:
Ubiquitin and zein (about 20 and 40 copies respectively in the maize genome);
EPSPS, single copy gene specific for GM soya; rubisco gene in chloroplast genome
(about 10 000 to 50 000 copies); and Bt (CrylA), single copy gene specific for
The first milk sample was probed for ubiquitin, rubisco and Bt; the second sample
was probed for all five gene-sequences. The milk was separated by centrifugation
into the cell fraction at the bottom, fat at the top and solution in between.
The first sample showed that ubiquitin DNA was present in all the cell and fat
fractions, but not in solution. The chloroplast rubisco DNA could be detected
in all cell and fat fractions. The Bt DNA was detected in all the fractions
that were positive for chloroplast DNA, with a rather similar pattern.
The summary stated, “It was not difficult to prove the existence of general
plant DNA (chloroplasts) in this milk. In addition, positive signals for the
presence of Bt-maize fragments were obtained. This data indicates the presence
of small quantities of Bt-maize gene fragments in the tank milk.” (emphasis
However, the authors made the unjustified assumptions that the Bt-maize gene
fragments came from other sources than the animals producing the milk and that
they have no biological significance, “The presence of Bt-maize material
in the milk supplied is not necessary due to endogenous factors (i.e., via the
animal itself). Thus, the presence of many different kinds of feed in the tank
milk is likely and almost inevitable in spite of stringent hygienic conditions.
The PCR analysis will also detect dust or aerosols from neighbouring feeding
areas. On the basis of the biological knowledge available to us, the presence
of the very small quantity of Bt-maize DNA identified has only analytical but
no biological relevance whatsoever.”
In the second sample, not only was the Bt gene fragment from GM maize detected
in milk, the EPSPS gene fragment from GM soya - contained in the animal feed
- was also detected. The summary stated, “In this milk, it was possible
to identify sporadic traces of general plant DNA (chloroplasts) as well as zein
and EPSPS gene fragments. As well as this, slightly positive signals indicating
the presence of Bt-maize fragments were also contained. This data indicates
minor contamination with Bt-maize gene fragments in the tank milk.”
Again, this “contamination” was deemed to have “no biological
GM DNA in milk is a cause for concern
The presence of GM DNA in milk is a cause for concern, regardless of whether
it originated in the animal producing the milk, or by contamination from “dust
or aerosols” containing GM feed, which according to the authors of the
unpublished report  “is likely and almost inevitable in spite of stringent
GM DNA is unlike natural DNA in many respects . It contains new combinations
of genetic material that have never existed in billions of years of evolution,
including genes sequences that are completely synthesized in the laboratory,
differing significantly from their natural counterparts. GM DNA is designed
with recombination sequences in order to break and insert into genomes; it also
contains other changes to overcome genetic differences between species. GM DNA
inserting into genomes causes mutational and other genome rearrangements including
cancer. In addition, GM DNA contains a high proportion of viral and bacterial
DNA, known to cause a range of immune reactions in human .
Another source of hazard from GM DNA comes from the gene products encoded, which
have never been part of our food chain. For example, one study found that two-thirds
of all the transgenes have similarities to known allergens [9, 10] and should
be regarded as potential allergens until proven otherwise.