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Tomato of the Future Delayed . . . Again : Biotechnology: The company set to market the nation's first genetically engineered tomato is finding that it's not easy to get its controversial product into grocery stores.

March 10, 1994|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The debut of Flavr Savr, the genetically engineered tomato, suffered yet another setback recently when a public hearing on its safety was canceled without rescheduling by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Developed by Calgene Inc., the Flavr Savr was originally supposed to reach supermarket produce counters more than a year ago, but its introduction has been repeatedly delayed as the FDA reviews the genetic alterations in the tomato that allow for vine ripening and extended shelf life.

The FDA, which had planned to hold the two-day session this week, canceled the hearing because the agency was unable to assemble all the relevant scientific experts. An FDA spokesman said that the cancellation was a matter of scheduling and not a reflection on the status of the Flavr Savr.

Others are not so sure. They believe the climate for food biotechnology has changed in the aftermath of the controversy surrounding FDA's approval of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, or BGH, a genetically engineered drug administered to cows that increases milk production.

Calgene officials, for one, were surprised by the cancellation, especially since they were given only about a week's notice that such a session would take place.

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"We don't think that a meeting is necessary but we don't believe that FDA will take final action till after such a meeting is held," said Carolyn Hayworth, public relations manager for Calgene in Davis, Calif. "The consumer reaction to BGH may have had some hindrance on the FDA and its final approval of the Flavr Savr."

She said the FDA appears to want to make a public demonstration that it has thoroughly reviewed the Flavr Savr.

Charles M. Benbrook Ph.D, a Washington-based agriculture consultant, agreed that the FDA is being especially cautious about Flavr Savr because of its experience with BGH, now being marketed by the Monsanto Co.

Just Monday a Washington advocacy group, the Pure Food Campaign, placed a full-page advertisement in the New York Times that was extremely critical of the FDA's approval of BGH and its subsequent presence in the dairy supply. Among other things, Pure Food denounced the FDA decision against labeling milk products derived from cows treated with BGH.

Benbrook, former executive director for the National Research Council's Board on Agriculture, said that in the aftermath of BGH, Calgene will likely be required by FDA to label its Flavr Savr tomato as a product of biotechnology.

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"The strength of negative consumer reaction to BGH makes labeling fait accompli for Calgene," he said. "I'm sure it is aggravating and very disappointing for them."

Even before the hearing cancellation, FDA delays prompted Calgene to lay off an undisclosed number of employees at Calgene Fresh, a subsidiary formed to distribute the Flavr Savr. Initially, Calgene Fresh was test-marketing conventionally grown and vine-ripened tomatoes that approximated the care that will be needed to pack and distribute the Flavr Savr.

Yet, Hayworth said that Calgene Fresh was losing too many of the vine-ripened tomatoes to spoilage during the 18-month pilot project and that the firm decided to pull back operations in order to control costs. Calgene's conventional tomatoes, marketed under the MacGregor label, are sold to more than 500 supermarkets.

The company said that the Flavr Savr tomato, upon FDA approval, will not have as high a spoilage rate as conventional vine-ripened fruit. Hayworth estimates that the Flavr Savr could be in supermarkets within four weeks of getting the government green light.

All the delays, however, have allowed Calgene competitors using conventional breeding practices to improve on the quality of commercial tomatoes now on the market.

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"The whole industry has changed dramatically in the last year," said David Marguleas, senior vice president for Sun World International, which markets the DiVine Ripe Tomato. "More specifically, many of the tomatoes we find in supermarkets today are improved varieties with better flavor, color, shelf life and size."

Marguleas asked: "If you can produce a superior-tasting, fresh market tomato with conventional breeding--and many growers are doing just that today--then why mess with a genetically engineered product and all the emotional, political and environmental concerns that go along with it?" He also questioned Calgene's contention that it trimmed its test distribution because of spoilage.

"I'd hate for the public to think that the reason they can't bring up a product is because they are throwing too many away. That sounds like the reasoning of someone who doesn't understand agriculture," he said.

Rather than spoilage, Marguleas says that the most common reason produce companies get into trouble is because of overproduction and resulting low prices. At present, he said there is a glut of tomatoes coming from Mexico at less than half the regular price for this time of year.

Calgene's Hayworth said the company expects its losses for the fiscal year ending June 30 to exceed the $25.6 million loss from the previous year. The company's stock price has also declined in the wake of the FDA's cancellation of the Flavr Savr hearing.

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