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Biotech Brew Tries to Tap Into Europe

The genetically modified lager, which must be labeled as such, is slow to catch on.

August 08, 2004|Matt Moore | Associated Press Writer

COPENHAGEN — Spurned across the continent by food-fastidious Europeans, the biotechnology industry has turned in its quest for converts to the ultimate ice breaker: genetically modified beer.

A consortium of the world's largest biotech companies led by Monsanto Co. helped fund a Swedish brewer's new light lager that's produced with the usual hops and barley -- and a touch of genetically engineered corn.

Brew master Kenth Persson hopes to profit from the notoriety that his biotech brew is generating, while biotech companies hope that it can gently sway consumers as European regulators slowly reopen the continent to genetically altered foods.

But those are tall orders to fill.

A series of food-related health scares in recent years, from mad cow disease to poisoned poultry, have stoked fears among many Europeans about so-called GM foods.

Europeans insist that such food be clearly labeled, a vivid contrast with U.S. consumers, who don't appear bothered that so much of their processed food includes genetically engineered soy and corn.

Indeed, most of the European Union's 457 million residents are adamant about their food being kept free from any sort of modifications, genetic or otherwise.

And that might help explain why Kenth beer is hardly a barroom hit.

The brewer won't say how many bottles have been sold since the beer was unveiled earlier this year in Denmark and Sweden. But he says 4,000 bottles are on their way to stores and pubs in Germany, and he's in talks with stores in the United Kingdom.

Although research on GM foods hasn't yielded any nightmare scenarios about damage to life and limb, Nicholas Fjord of Malmoe in southern Sweden is not entirely convinced either.

Despite reassurances that genetically modified products are safe, an image keeps popping up in Fjord's mind about a relative whose mother took Thalidomide in the 1960s because she was assured that it was safe.

"So safe, indeed, that he has no elbow or knee joints and, despite living a good life, has been hindered since his birth," Fjord said. Granted, that's an extreme fear, he said, but one that seems to be strong in Europe.

A study conducted earlier this year by Finland's National Consumer Research Center showed that of all the concerns about manufactured food that Finns have, genetically modified foods topped the list. Some 60% of the population expressed "strong concern," according to the survey.

In April, the EU lifted a six-year moratorium on new biotech food, but just barely. The previous month, it approved the sale of a modified strain of sweet corn, grown mainly in the United States. But any food containing that corn must be labeled as genetically modified.

U.S. farmers argue that the labeling amounts to a de facto ban, and the Bush administration says it will continue pushing its biotech trade complaint at the World Trade Organization.

And that's where Kenth comes in.

The beer was created because Monsanto believed that the biotech debate "never rose further than the inner circle of scientists, politicians and [nongovernmental organizations]," said Mattias Zetterstrand, a Monsanto spokesman based in Stockholm, the Swedish capital. "Our wish was to contribute to this situation by making an abstract discussion more concrete."

The corn in Kenth was approved for use in 1998, before the European moratorium started, and is grown in Germany. The Monsanto-created corn seed is spliced with a bacterium's gene to resist the corn borer pest without the need for insecticides.

Zetterstrand wouldn't say how much the biotech consortium contributed to the project, but said the companies hadn't purchased equity in the small Swedish brewer and would not share in sales of the beer. The other companies involved in the project are Bayer CropScience, DuPont, Plant Science Sweden, Svaloef Weibull and Syngenta.

The brewer, Persson, said he realized that selling a genetically modified beverage in the European Union could be a risky proposition -- especially when its label touts GM ingredients unabashedly.

Greenpeace activists chased Kenth-laden trucks in Sweden and Denmark, discouraging stores from buying the brew, when it was first introduced, and Greenpeace continues to pressure big grocery chains to avoid stocking it.

Dan Belusa, a Greenpeace spokesman, said the protest encouraged ICA, a large Swedish grocery chain, to remove Kenth from its shelves.

"Basically, no GM foods are sold in Europe because consumers and retailers make a conscious choice to say 'no' to them," he said.

The brewer and Monsanto say Greenpeace's efforts haven't deterred their plans.

Kenth is now being sold through the Swedish state-owned liquor monopoly, Systembolaget, in southern Sweden, and there have been no protests. But its availability is limited.

At a recent barbecue in Ingaroe, a small town about a 30-minute drive from Stockholm, a six-pack of the bottles was offered up for a taste test.

All in all, everyone who quaffed said it tasted just fine, just like other beer.

They weren't put off by its label, which proudly denotes its GM use.

"To me, it's strictly the taste test," media consultant Debi Vaught-Thelin said.

Associated Press writer Paul Elias in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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