I am the last person on earth I expected to find writing this piece; even now I find myself in a bewilderment.
When I heard about the academic directive calling on the powers that be to throw Dr. Oz to the curb for “repeatedly show[ing] disdain for science and for evidence based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops … [and] an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain,” I like many medical professionals, at first applauded.
I have been a vocal critic of the Great and Powerful Oz hawking supplements and diet programs based on unsubstantiated claims, poor data or faulty logic. Over the years, when appropriate I’ve addressed this not only in the blogosphere but through my time as a newspaper columnist calling him out on such ridiculous assertions as those involving raspberry ketones and green coffee extract.
But the story of Dr. Oz, like most tales in medicine and life is neither black nor white but shades of gray; fortunately far less than fifty of them. While I may not agree with Dr. Oz and many or even a majority of his positions; he has performed a valuable public service. Through his popularity in the media he is brought to light a number of important topics that deserves public scrutiny and discussion.
Among those has been his discussion of the impact of agribusiness and the food industry’s use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Whatever your current position on this topic, the right for the public to know what is in their food and to make their own choices about it seems protected under that familiar phrase “…in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.” Denied knowledge about potential additives that may cause disability and disease and perhaps an untimely death seems to violate all three sacrosanct principles upon which this country was founded.
So when the diatribe continued thusly that “Dr. Oz is guilty of either outrageous conflicts of interest or flawed judgments about what constitutes appropriate medical treatments, or both. Whatever the nature of his pathology, members of the public are being misled and endangered, which makes Dr. Oz’s presence on the faculty of a prestigious medical institution unacceptable,” the argument as presented seems to this observer to take on tones of a personal nature. Whenever the discussion turns into an argumentum ad hominem, it is time to look more closely at the motivations and interests behind the attacks.
While the letter was portrayed across the mainstream media as coming from ten of the leading medical academicians from across the country, almost a third (three of the ten) had no academic affiliation. Additionally, the letter was never circulated among other medical professionals for the purpose of expressing a truly majority opinion. All of which begins to beg the question of what links together this letter’s signatories. Why, exactly, are they “surprised and dismayed that Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons would permit Dr. Mehmet Oz to occupy a faculty appointment, let alone a senior administrative position (vice chair) in the Department of Surgery”?
The lead author of the letter is Henry I. Miller, MD. He is currently the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy & Public Policy at the Hoover Institution, which is part of Stanford University. A position that is obviously prestigious.
He was previously a medical reviewer at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While at the FDA he oversaw the development and approval of the first genetically engineered drugs. According to information available on the Hoover Institution website, Dr Miller was “instrumental in the rapid licensing of human insulin and human growth hormone.” These are therapies which are proven themselves invaluable and Dr. Miller should be lauded for such a complement. It seemed as if he was justly rewarded because he later served as the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology Products from 1989 until 1994.
The timing of the letter to Columbia University is intriguing in that it follows on the heels of a blistering publication by Dr. Miller that attacked Dr. Oz for one of his recent broadcasts dedicated to the discussion of GMOs. However, Dr. Miller contends that his issue with Dr. Oz is “the whole constellation of his fear-mongering… and dangerous advice.”
In fact with respect to the other signatories, Dr. Miller goes on to praise them, noting that he is “personally or professional acquainted with all of them. What they have in common is that they have a commitment to science and evidence-based medicine.” He denied that they shared any organizational affiliation.
Yet it was later discovered that four of the ten physicians who signed the letter have or had close ties to the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). When it was later confronted with this evidence, Dr. Miller replied, “The only common thread is that they’re smart docs.”
Perhaps not only smart, but financially prudent as well. The ACSH is a nonprofit organization. It is chartered as an educational and advocacy group. Coincidentally, it has received donations to promote the safety, use and consumption of all types of that has defended genetically modified foods. Gilbert Ross, MD, is listed as the acting president and executive director. Jack Fisher, MD is a current member of the board of trustees. Glenn Swogger, Jr., MD and Dr. Miller are former trustees. All four signed the letter calling for the firing of Dr. Oz from Columbia University.
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader said of the ACSH that it exists as “…a consumer front organization for its business backers. It has seized the language and style of the existing consumer organizations, but its real purpose, you might say, is to glove the hand that feeds it.” The ACSH has been involved in the discussion regarding DDT, calling the ban on this agent one of the 20 worst unfounded health scares of the 20th century. Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan, the late President and Founder of the American Council on Science and Health has been quoted as claiming there is “no such thing as ‘junk food,’” and that “There is insufficient evidence of a relationship between diet and any disease.” Other advice and commentary from ACHS includes such questionable assertions that “There is no evidence that exposure to secondhand smoke involves heart attacks or cardiac arrest,”; “The scientific evidence is clear. There has never been a case of ill health linked to the regulated, approved use of pesticides in this country,” and that “There is no evidence that BPA [bisphenol A] in consumer products of any type… are harmful to health.”
While pulling the curtain to expose Dr. Oz, it seems that the ACSH itself has an extremely checkered history. During the late 1970s and 1980s The ACSH appear to solicit money from cigarette manufacturers to fund opposition to the claims that smoking cigarettes was bad for your health. In 1980 ACHS co-founder Dr. Frederick Stare wrote to tobacco giant Philip Morris; “We are a voice of scientific reason in a sea of pseudo-science, exaggeration and misinformation. We believe it would be to your benefit to help ACSH… we hope you will contribute $10,000 or more.” Shortly before the ACSH stopped disclosing a list of its donors, Monsanto was listed among them.
If these ACSH executives wish to attack Dr. Oz, perhaps they need to make sure that their glass house is tempered and reinforced. Dr. Ross, current executive director of the ACSH is a felon. He was convicted of “racketeering, mail fraud and conspiracy.” He was sentenced to 47 months in jail, subject to $40,000 in forfeiture and ordered to pay restitution of $612,855 related to Medicaid fraud. He was also subject to a ten year exclusion from participating in Medicare or any other federally funded health care programs.
For all the bluster and to beguilement on both sides, the crux of the argument seems to surround GMOs. While it is true that human kind has been genetically manipulating plants and animals since the agricultural revolution there is a critical difference with respect to some GMOs. Proponents often not only site the aforementioned history of genetic manipulation through selective breeding, they often tout examples of certain traits being selected to train species breeding. Imperative fact to note in this instance, is that these species are naturally compatible.
A GMO as we currently use the term is a completely artificial construct. It is man-made. For example, a genetically modified corn like NK603 GM manufactured by Monsanto is engineered to overexpress the modified version of the Agrobacterium tumefaciens 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS-CP4). This makes the maize resistant to the effects of the herbicide Roundup. Agrobacterium tumefaciens is a rod-shaped, gram-negative soil bacterium also known as Rhizobium radiobacter. It causes crown gall disease, which affects a number of plant species. The gene from this bacterium is introduced into the DNA of the corn so that the plant now produces the bacterial product; rendering it immune to the effects of the herbicide. John Boehner and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz have a better chance of a hook-up in the wild than these two; with undoubtedly more toxic offspring.
The debate Oz brings to the table is about the potential effects of such manipulations. Such concerns are reasonable on a number of fronts. There is a dearth of data regarding the long-term effects of the chronic consumption of such GMOs. It is pertinent to note that currently no regulatory agency requires any mandatory chronic animal feeding studies to be performed for GMOs destined for human consumption.
A confounding fact is that the formulations of pesticides and herbicides as used in the agricultural application are likewise not required to undergo such studies With respect to herbicides and pesticides, only the active component is required to undergo testing. For example, in the case of Roundup only the active agent, glyphosate was subject to toxicity studies.
This is important because there are possible direct biological effects from the other chemicals utilized in the formulation. Additionally, there may be indirect effects as the other constituents can affect the absorption and metabolism of the active component. Several pesticides have demonstrated significantly increased toxicity when the full formulations are studied as compared to the active principle alone. The full formulations are how these agents are applied in agricultural practice.
Nonetheless, in effort to demonstrate safety the agricultural biotechnology industry has conducted several ninety day rat feeding trials primarily utilizing genetically modified soy and maize. The vast majority of the genetically modified plants have been constructed to be resistant to the effects of the herbicide Roundup, or to produce a modified Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin insecticide, or both. Such studies form the basis of the agribusiness claims as to the safety of genetically modified foodstuffs.
Bacillus thuringiensis is a spore forming bacterium that produces crystals protein (cry proteins), which are toxic to many species of insects. It is often used in organic farming as a natural pesticide. In genetically modified plants, the bacterial gene that produces the cry proteins is transferred into the DNA of the plant. The plant now directly produces the insecticide.
In the case of the Roundup resistant genetically modified plants, the ability of the cash crop to be resistant to the herbicide allows for liberal application. This can result in the presence of herbicide in food that is eaten and also for potential accumulation and concentration when it is used as feed for animal products. As a result, some countries have developed maximum residue levels (MRL) for these compounds. Unfortunately, these levels are often determined by toxicity studies that only target the active principle, not the compound at it as it is utilized in agricultural application.
The original study aimed at documenting the safety of Roundup resistant genetically modified maize demonstrated statistically significant differences in the liver and kidney function between the rats fed the GMO versus the non-GMO. The Monsanto sponsored authors explain this finding as not “biologically meaningful.” As in all such cases to date, the governmental regulatory agencies have accepted such explanations at face value.
When researchers studied the same type of rats that were utilized in the Monsanto study to demonstrate safety, but over significantly longer time period discrepancies became apparent. The long term study examined three different doses of genetically modified maize; 11% of diet, 22% of diet and 33% of diet. There was also a group that received the genetically modified maize that had been treated with the herbicide Roundup. In addition to the control group, there was a final group that received the Roundup alone (added to the drinking water) at levels currently permitted by regulatory agencies. These amounts are significantly less than the MRL. The rats were studied at intervals over two years.
The liver and kidney problems noted at ninety days in the original Monsanto study developed into severe pathologies over the course of two years. The detrimental effects were seen in every treatment group; those that were fed genetically modified maize, those that were fed genetically modified maize treated with Roundup and those that received Roundup in their drinking water.
The rats in the treatment group had 2 to 3 times the incidence of tumors. The female rats were particularly given to the development of mammary tumors. There was also a high level of pituitary tumors. These and other findings, suggest a threshold effect causing significant disruption to the endocrine system. There was major disease and dysfunction of the hepatorenal system as well. The treatment groups, unsurprisingly, also experienced increased mortality.
Such disturbing findings highlight the need for ongoing dialogue. Particularly when Dr. Miller recently wrote that, “glyphosate has lower overall health impacts than white vinegar (aka the chemical acetic acid) when used as a[sic] herbicide.” This is the same glyphosate that the world health organization working group has classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” While Dr. Miller may be willing to add glyphosate to his vinaigrette, in India suicide by ingesting herbicides containing glyphosate are among the most common methods. Consumption of such compounds are associated with high fatality. For those that survived the initial event there are long term health effects that include pulmonary fibrosis, renal failure, hepatic failure, and heart failure. Even more unknown are the effects compounds like glyphosate on the gut microbiota; either directly on the human gut microbiome with intestinal environment of animals raised on GMO feed. One study examined the effect of glyphosate on potential pathogens and beneficial members of poultry microbiota in vitro. The researchers found that highly pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella Entritidis, Salmonella Gallinarum, Salmonella Typhimurium, Clostridium perfringens and Clostridium botulinum are highly resistant to glyphosate. Conversely, most of beneficial bacteria as Enterococcus faecalis, Enterococcus faecium, Bacillus badius, Bifidobacterium adolescentis and Lactobacillus spp. were found to be moderate to highly susceptible. Affecting such a microenvironment not only directly affects the health of poultry, but affects the health of all who might consume such products.
So when the great and powerful Oz recently boomed from his media pulpit that, “Freedom of speech is the most fundamental right…. We will not be silenced… just like 64 countries around the world, I support GMO labeling so you can decide on the foods for your family. “I say kudos; a phrase I never thought I would connect in the same sentence with Dr Mehmet Oz.
Equally telling was a written statement from the ACSH, reportedly authored by Dr. Ross; “Instead of addressing the primary concern… He’s personally attacking his critics, while at the same time claiming they are trying to silence him.” Which all seems to me to be a bit of the pot calling the kettle black.
Even more intriguing in a karmic sort of way was the resignation of one of the members from the ACSH Board of Trustees. Paul Offit, MD, a professor of pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, reported that he is resigning because the group supports e-cigarettes. Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota asked the ACSH to remove a decade’s-old endorsement of the group that is posted on the website because he now objects to some of the group’s positions.
Is there a problem with many the pills, practices and potions Dr. Oz promotes? In my opinion the answer is a resounding “yes.” But in such discussions, the arguments must focus on the facts, not the man. Those claiming superior ethos and intellect who engage with denigrating and dismissive commentary while hiding veiled motives are no better than what they claim must be destroyed. In the end perhaps it is the Scarecrow, not the Wizard of Oz who summed it up most wisely and best; “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t you think?”
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