PITY the poor tomato. Once bursting with color, juice, and flavor, it has been bred into a pallid, dry, tasteless imitation of itself. Comparisons to cardboard and plastic may draw a laugh, but they often seem close to the truth as "vine-ripened" increasingly becomes a quaint phrase from the past.
Now the tomato has won a victory of sorts against the latest threatened indignity - genetic engineering, which delays ripening and extends shelf life. The Campbell Soup Company has backed away from plans to market a genetically altered tomato bearing the suspiciously high-tech name of Flavr Savr. A consumer group, the Pure Food Campaign, headed by Jeremy Rifkin, had threatened a worldwide boycott of Campbell products, although company executives deny any connection between the possible boycott and their decision not to market the futuristic product.
Whatever the impetus, their decision comes as good news to anyone who cares about the quality of food. Lengthening shelf life represents a dubious form of progress if it means that something with little flavor will simply have little flavor longer.
A paradox exists in the food industry. Many Americans display growing sophistication about nutrition, insisting on the purest, freshest, best foods available. However high-tech the rest of their life might be, they want their food low-tech and back-to-the-earth basic.
Yet as if in direct defiance of that trend, scientists and food manufacturers continue to tinker genetically with animals, vegetables, and fruits, hoping to develop products that can be shipped farther and will last longer.
Consumers may be gaining ground, as the Campbell Soup decision indicates. In addition, although the Food and Drug Administration has approved foods with genetically altered codes, more than 1,500 chefs nationwide are refusing to use these so-called "foods of the future."
Food manufacturers and restaurateurs would do well to heed the message customers are sending: "Leave our food alone." Plastic-looking (and -tasting) fruits and vegetables may be fine in centerpieces, but they have no place on diners' plates.