Genetically Altered Tomatoes - Not Rotting at Grocery Stores

The genetically modified tomato has not exactly died on the vine. But some are questioning its longevity.

''We are still in limited supply. Demand is high,'' reports Carolyn Hayward, spokesperson for Calgene Fresh in Davis, Calif., the biotechnology company that introduced MacGregor's brand tomato, genetically altered to soften slower than conventional tomatoes.

Since the premium tomato crops that include MacGregor's haven't done well in Georgia and Florida this year, the tomatoes aren't widely available in markets. Currently, MacGregor's are being grown in Mexico for shipment mainly to the West Coast and sold for about $2.99 a pound, according to Ms. Hayward.

Calgene introduced MacGregor's brand tomatoes grown from trademark Flavr-Savr seeds in early 1994, touting them as ''summertime taste ... year-round.'' By isolating the gene that causes softening, copying it, and placing it in the tomato backwards scientists slowed down the softening process, allowing farmers to leave the tomatoes on the vine longer to develop more flavor. The Flavr Savr received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in May 1994.

It also received a lot of press. The genetically modified tomato was greeted with outcry by various groups - from celebrity chefs to consumer advocates and scientists who claim that a marker gene added in the process is harmful.

For many, the manipulation symbolized a much-larger controversy surrounding the ethics of genetic engineering.

Three major camps emerged: purists who consider the ''slow-rot'' tomato a dangerous step toward ''Frankenstein food''; fence-sitters who support genetic engineering in some cases but haven't decided on the Flavr Savr; and those who view this as scientific progress that will help control food supply, reduce food waste, and offer consumers a better product. Meanwhile, several other biotechnology companies have also genetically modified tomatoes. And the FDA has approved about a dozen genetically engineered food products.

One of the most vocal groups against such biotechnology has been the Pure Food Campaign, which led a national boycott.

''The genetically engineered tomato has totally failed in the marketplace,'' says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the campaign. ''What scientists said would happen, didn't happen,'' he says, referring to reports that the tomato did last longer, but had skin that pierced and bruised too easily. ''Why do we need high-tech, genetically engineered foods when the public wants low-chemical input, organic foods?'' he asks.

Taste tests varied. Some people could not differentiate between a MacGregor's and a store-bought ''in season'' tomato. Others found the quality in between store-bought and fresh-summer-farm-stand. Still others reported a faint metallic taste.

According to Brad Stone, spokesman for the FDA, consumers will probably be seeing more genetically engineered food products, such as a squash engineered to be virus-resistant and a potato altered to resist potato beetles.

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