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From Aspartame to Sucralose: What’s Behind the Ramazzini Institute?

Cooperative companies and Democratic Party’s hidden affairs are behind studies on food and cancer.
The research on carcinogenic food conducted by the Ramazzini Institute, whose leaders are members of the Democratic Party and which is the focus of economic and political interests, faces heavy international criticism.

  • This article was published on the Italian political newspaper “Libero” on April 30th, 2014

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“More people live on cancer than die of cancer.” It is not a comment on the reassuring statistics released in recent days, according to which 70% of cancer patients recover thanks to research efforts, but the bitter comment of a general practitioner, rather offended and worried by the whirlwind merry-go-round of money and the strong power struggle which thrives on cancer studies. There is a specific area where interests at stake are enormous: that of food substances suspected of being carcinogenic. Whenever a pseudo-scientist raises his eyebrow, the business collapses.

Thus, the power struggle to get a seat on the supervisory bodies is hidden and strong, and food lobbies grease the wheels of research. This happens all over the world, but there is an additional anomaly in Italy: a red cell is dealing with cell degeneration. That of the Democratic Party (PD) and Cooperative companies, who want to get their hands on EFSA, the EU institution responsible for food safety, based in Parma, by using scientific research as a means. Everything revolves around a prestigious name, the Ramazzini Institute, which bears the name of the inventor of occupational medicine, and which appointed itself to take up the legacy of Cesare Maltoni, internationally renowned oncologist from Emilia. 

But the question is: has the legacy been well preserved? And most importantly: is everything clear in the Ramazzini Institute’s studies and management? The question is topical these days, as biologist and Ramazzini’s Cancer Research Centre director Fiorella Belpoggi, sponsored by the Democratic Party, the Greens and the Five Star Movement, has been proposed by the European Parliament to choose EFSA’s new members. Belpoggi’s appointment mows down Giuseppe Ruocco, a researcher at the Ministry of Health, and opens the door to political candidacies within the body of technical control, with the result that Italy could be cut off from the EFSA board. But why does the Ramazzini Institute have so much interest in EFSA? The Coop sells, buys and produces foods: funding scientific advice, or simply being informed about it in advance, gives it an advantage. After all, relations between Ramazzini and EFSA are not idyllic, and the EU Food Safety Authority has some kind of fixation with the Bologna-based Institute.

It all began with Ramazzini’s strong alarm on aspartame, the artificial sweetener accused of being carcinogenic. A decade ago, the Scientific Director and Honorary Chairmanof the Ramazzini Institute, Professor Morando Soffriti, announced that a study carried out on rats showed that aspartame was carcinogenic. But the study conducted by the Institute was flooded with criticism: results were not validated, and in the end, EFSA concluded that there was no evidence of carcinogenicity for aspartame. Indeed, doubts arose as to whether the Institute was using the international standards for research and the Ministry of Health has ever approved its laboratories. Not satisfied with having cut a poor figure with aspartame, researchers gave it one more try with sucralose, which most people know as sucrose or Splenda. Well: always using mice fed with the artificial sweetener until their natural death, Soffritti announced to have discovered that sucralose could cause tumours, from leukaemia to breast degeneration. These findings were flooded with criticism once again, so much so that Forbes magazine called the Ramazzini Institute “something of a joke in European and American science,” even saying that some validated studies show that sucralose is correlated with a reduction in cancer rates. 

Now, the Ramazzini Institute, which seems to be about to get its hands on EFSA, sets itself up as the defender of global health for the third time. In fact, it has just announced it will conduct a study on “glyphosate,” the most widely used herbicide suspected of being carcinogenic, in order to help the European body to banish it by providing the findings of its “independent research.”

But are we sure it is independent? The Ramazzini Institute – which is a non-profit organization with 27,000 members and whose balance sheet is unknown, apart from the factthat five years ago it went through a severe financial crisis that forced it to a drastic cut of its personnel – is a member of Legacoop, a cooperative federation, and all its leaders are involved in politics with the Democratic Party. From Chairman Simone Gamberini (Casalecchio di Reno’s former mayor with the Democratic Party, and former Secretary of the youth arm of the Democratici di Sinistra – DS) to Belpoggi herself, who is a member of the board of directors of the Legacoop Bologna, from General Manager Pier Paolo Busi, a Democratic Party advisor and a Councillor to the Cento municipality, to all the councillors, starting with Rino Ruggeri, vice president of the powerful Coop Adriatica, which manages supermarkets.

Why are coops so interested in the Ramazzini Institute? Simple: because it makes social action. Almost all coops have agreements with the Bologna-based researchers for labor medicine, and almost all coops fund the Institute, which collects money even with events that closely resemble “Unity Parties.” But maybe there is more. Suffice it to say that the turnover of sweeteners in Europe is worth €750 million, and double that worldwide: it is easy to understand that controlling this market through studies brings some good business. Indeed many people know that associating food and cancer research is a business. Forexample, Marco Bianchi, the so-called “chef researcher”who, whilst keeping a foot in two solid camps such as the Verona Institute and the AIFO (together they control AIRC, the Italian Association of Cancer Research), has become the face of food giants like De Rica, Orogel and Rio Mareby explaining people how they should eat to avoid getting sick. Or the director of the CNR Institute of Experimental Oncology, Professor Alfredo Fusco, who is being investigated by the Naples and Milan prosecutors, along with Monica Fedele, one of his researchers, on suspicion of having rigged cancer studies to get funding. 

In order to understand how sensitive the food-cancer field is you need to remember the uproar caused by the WHO (World Health Organization) on red meat consumption. Then there are the frauds, like the Stamina case, because the amount of money that revolves around cancer research is enormous: in the US, chemotherapy is worth $ 100 billion, and there is the suspicion that millions of false-positive results have been fabricated to inflate the deal. However, even the financial statements of Italy’spraiseworthy AIRC show that in 2014 (latest data available) €81.1 million were allocated to research (about 77%), compared with €105 million collected (€49.4 million from fundraising, €55.6 million from the 5 per thousand), while the rest fed the fundraising business. Perhaps there is some truth in the assumption that many people “live” on cancer.

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