The facts: The chicken run revisited

Was Zembla right about WUR and the chicken run? Resource checks.

Is organic food healthier? It might be, but researchers were not allowed to draw that conclusion from a study WUR was involved in, according to the Dutch TV programme Zembla. Is that true?

The 2007 WUR study ‘Is organic healthier?’ was the subject of the report ‘The chicken experiment’ that was broadcast on the BNN/Vara channel on 22 October. A consortium of institutes (WUR, TNO, RIkilt and the Louis Bolk Institute) sought to demonstrate the health impact of organic food. Chickens stood in for humans in the study, which tested the effects of regular and organic feed.

The issue

According to Zembla, the conclusions of the chicken study were changed under pressure. That is a serious allegation.

The research leader and medical doctor Machteld Huber (then at the Louis Bolk Institute) said on Zembla that at the presentation of the final report to the then agriculture minister Gerda Verburg, she had to say that no conclusions could be drawn from the results. She was subjected to strong pressure – she even uses the word blackmail – by TNO.

The facts

The chicken study was a double-blind one. Only when the report was nearly finished did the researchers know which chickens had been given which feed. It turned out the chickens fed on regular feed grew a bit better. After an attack on their immune system, however, the ‘organic chickens’ recovered a bit faster. Their growth also accelerated slightly faster. The report concludes that no health effects can be linked to these findings, as the scientific evidence is too flimsy.

I wasn’t allowed to draw any conclusions in which the word health was used

Research leader and medical doctor Machteld Huber

Asked if she agrees with that, Huber says she does. The disagreement stemmed from the different interpretations of the differences that were found. ‘The question is whether the accelerated growth counts as a health phenomenon,’ explains Huber. ‘In the medical world, it does. The study did not aim at developing better chicken feed, we were looking for evidence of possible effects of organic food on humans. In my opinion, the study shows that there is evidence that organic food is healthier. I would have liked to say that at the presentation. And that we would like to do further research. But TNO thought it was too soon to conclude that. I wasn’t allowed to draw any conclusions in which the word health was used.’

According to Huber, that conclusion meant no follow-up research. But that is an oversimplification, suggests a response to the Zembla programme from the ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. Because of the disagreement about how to interpret the study, the then minister of Health Verburg sought the advice of the Health Council.
The Council advised her that the follow-up research the researchers were proposing was ‘not so desirable’. Zembla doesn’t mention this fact. The minister then pulled the plug on the research. ‘Painful, and actually scandalous that it was done like that,’ says Huber. ‘We are now 13 years down the line. We would have got so much further if there had been follow-up research.’

The verdict

The conclusions of the chicken study were not changed, as Zembla claimed. The results do provide the basis for further research. That did not happen, on the advice of the Health Council. But it is still possible that  follow-up research will be done, says LNV in response to the Zembla report.  

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