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Genetic freshness: The biotech tomato heads for market

No longer need North American consumers put up all winter with pale pink tomatoes as hard and flavorless as golf balls. Soon other fruits and vegetables, from cantaloupes to cucumbers, will not only look but taste better, and frozen foods won't melt into mush when defrosted-all thanks to the advances of biotechnology.

In a move that left many critics uneasy, but the food processing industry satisfied, the U.S. government last year gave the green light to the new technology, rulina that food comprised of gene-altered plant material will not be regulated differently from foods made of conventionally bred plants. The first bioengineered food headed for market is the trademarked Flavr Savr tomato, guaranteed by its developers to taste vine-ripened and freshpicked.

Until the ruling by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency responsible for monitoring the safety of all drugs and many foods sold in the United States, the biotechnology industry had feared that foods produced by genetic engineering might be subjected to long delays for time-consuming tests and exhaustive regulatory procedures. The FDA decision set a precedent for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates the production and sale of conventional as well as genetically engineered meats, poultry and fish, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which oversees genetically engineered and conventional pesticides and genetically engineered disease and chemical resistance in plants.

There was an outcry from environmental and consumer watchdog organizations, but both government and industry were content with FDA's decision to give biotechnology the benefit of the doubt.

Almost simultaneously with the FDA announcement, the Monsanto Corporation reported what it called a “very significant” genetic engineering development that may lead to herbicide-resistant varieties of wheat. More than a dozen other American companies have already produced about 70 varieties of cucumbers, potatoes, cantaloupes and other plants that contain genes from other species which, the companies claim, improve their quality.

Ripe but not rotting

The Calgene Company of Davis, California, developed the Flavr Savr tomato by splicing an extra gene into the chromosomes of an ordinary tomato to delay the chemical changes that cause fruit to decompose rapidly after normal ripening.

Tom Churchwell, head of Calgene Fresh, Calgene's marketing subsidiary in Chicago, took issue with reports that the Flavr Savr's great virtue is longer shelf life. Its real advantage, he said, is that it does not need to be picked while still green, but can be left to ripen on the vine and still reach the market- and the dinner table-before it begins to rot. “Neither grocery managers nor anyone else wants to keep tomatoes sitting on a shelf for more than a few hours or a day or two. The real gain for consumers is that they can get tomatoes of homegrown quality at their grocery stores 365 days a year,” Churchwell said.

Calgene's tomato is patented, which is another aspect of the new technology that raises questions. Could anyone buy a Flavr Savr, scrape out some seeds and plant them in the back yard? “Yes,” said Churchwell, “but that would be a patent infringement.” Churchwell said Calgene is not worried that amateur gardeners will become serious patent infringers because they already grow garden-fresh tomatoes. What is at issue-and what is patented-is not a specific variety but a process that, Churchwell noted, can be applied to transform “almost any good variety.”

Calgene is contracting with farmers to grow the new tomato for sale in U.S. grocery stores but does not expect to market the tomato's seeds, Churchwell said. It plans to develop varieties adapted to a wide range of localities throughout the United States, and eventually other countries, and to contract with local growers to produce crops for their area's fresh produce markets.

Third World possibilities

“I think the possibilities for these products are particularly promising in less developed countries where distances are long and transportation from farms to market is slow,” Churchwell said.

Under the FDA policy that is making all of this possible, biotech products will be regulated like other foods. Like the producers of other foods, biotech manufacturers will operate on a kind of honor system in respect to food safety. It will be up to the manufacturers to detect or anticipate potential health hazards and call them to FDA's attention.

If a manufacturer uses abnormal biotech ingredients in a product- even when abnormal ingredients are of conventional origin-he is required to notify FDA and submit to testing for safety and efficacy before he can market the product. But if a product is comprised of material that is basically no different from what is in an ordinary product and the manufacturer has no reason to suspect it might pose a hazard to health, he can market it without specific approval from FDA.

The teeth in FDA's procedure come from its powers to seize and force off the market any product it finds to be unsafe. A producer who offers an unsafe or misrepresented food pays the penalty of losing credibility with his customers, forfeiting the costs of market development work and being left with an unsaleable product.

Although critics condemn this indirect regulatory power as inadequate, government authorities insist that what seems to be a permissive procedure is actually highly effective and provides U.S. consumers with a safe food supply. The alternative would be for FDA itself to carry out pre-market testing to ensure the safety of every new food variation as well as the enormous range of existing forms and brands. This would duplicate the effort and might almost match the multibillion dollar cost of the food industry's own tests and quality control measures.

Defending the government policy, officials assert that genetic engineering is essentially the same as conventional selective breeding and cross-breeding to establish improved characteristics. In announcing the policy, FDA said it is consistent with recommendations of expert panels on this subject convened by the National Academy of Sciences and the joint FAD/WHO consultation on food safety and biotechnology.”

Mixing flora with flounder

Critics, however, contend that no conventional breeder ever tried, much less succeeded in, such feats as scientists are now attempting-like introducing into vegetables a fish gene that keeps flounders from freezing while swimming in Arctic water. The aim is to stop frozen foods from getting mushy when thawed.

In a complaint filed with the FDA, Dr. Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist on the staff of the Environmental Defence Fund, proposed three new rules that would add an element of caution:

1) that the new policy require formal approval by FDA before gene-spliced foods can be marketed;

2) that labels be required to disclose all substances added by genetic engineering;

3) that FDA be notified of changes in the composition of genetically engineered whole foods before they are marketed.

The Foundation on Economic Trends, headed by Jeremy Rifkin, announced a “Pure Food Campaign.” He called for similar FDA policies, threatened lawsuits and boycotts of genetically engineered foods by merchants and consumers and launched a nationwide write-in campaign and television, radio and print advertising aimed at blocking the FDA policy.

But all these efforts are unlikely to change the new FDA policy immediately. FDA spokesman Brad Stone insisted that, like any other set of rules, the policy on biotechnology will stand until the passage of time shows it needs revision.

Robert G. Lewis