Just What We Need: a Tasteless Bio-Tomato

May 25, 1994|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON. — Now that bioengineered tomatoes have sprung from the mating of industry and science, the real question to be asked is a simple one: Why all the bother and colossal expenditure when the natural product is marvelous to satisfactory, and initial reviews of the biotech version do not sing of epicurean triumph?

The answer, of course, is that businessmen and scientists -- increasingly they're one and the same -- saw a chance to make money from the revolution in biological understanding that's occurred over the last 40 years. Investing heavily in rejiggering nature's own way of creating foodstuffs, they have indeed demonstrated awesome scientific prowess, first with milk, now with tomatoes, and with many more to come. But to what purpose?

The bio-tomato, known by an intentional spelling barbarism, ''Flavr Savr,'' embodies a feat of genetic wizardry that prolongs the ripening process by up to 10 days, or so it's claimed. The sales pitch of the producer, Calgene, Inc., runs as follows: Rather then picking tomatoes green and delaying ripening with chemicals, as is frequently done with natural tomatoes, the Flavr Savr version can be picked when it's ripe, shipped to market, and arrive in good condition.

Calgene worked on the tomato problem for five years and spent millions in research and field trials before the Food and Drug Administration recently approved Flavr Savr for marketing.

The one taste report I've seen comes from the educated palate of a New York Times food writer, Molly O'Neill, who was far from rapturous. Based on three separate encounters with Flavr Savr tomatoes, Ms. O'Neill described them as ''plump and juicy'' and possessing a ''giving, full-bodied texture.''

But it was downhill from there, with the juice described as ''weak and watery.'' The Flavr Savr, she concluded, ''is no replacement for the tomatoes of summer in salads or other cold dishes. Its character is too ambiguous: it suggests more tomato than it actually delivers,'' the reviewer said, adding that the product is akin to the hydroponic and greenhouse tomatoes ''available in upscale groceries in the dead of winter.''

Will Calgene reap a marketplace reward for its long struggle to bring Flavr Savr to market? There's no way of knowing at this point. But unless the product is clearly superior, it's doubtful that consumers will rush to buy it. Another factor, of course, is fear whipped up by bio-tech alarmists, of whom the most eminent is the indefatigable Jeremy Rifkin, of the piously titled Pure Food Campaign, a Washington lobbying group. He and his allies say genetically engineered food products have not been proved safe, andthey call for special labeling to identify them to consumers -- a sales chiller that manufacturers fervently oppose.

The Rifkin camp has inspired a substantial revolt against the first genetically altered product approved for sale, milk produced with recombinant bovine somatotropin (BST), a synthetic mimic of a hormone naturally present in cows. Responding to $l consumer fears, supermarkets around the country proclaim to their customers that their dairy products are the natural kind.

By virtually all accounts, BST is safe, indistinguishable from the real stuff and a boon to the production of milk, which it can boost as much as 25 percent -- though the cost-saving claims are open to doubt. There's a lot of crossfire between opponents of the product and Monsanto, the first and so far the only manufacturer of BST approved for marketing. The antis contend that BST puts stress on the cows and that ensuing infections are treated with antibiotics that end up in the milk.

The evidence is mixed and strongly disputed. But, with full recognition of the great scientific accomplishments inherent in recombinant bovine somatotropin, the ''Why bother?'' question intrudes itself again. Though consumption of milk is declining, it remains in such oversupply that the federal government supports the dairy industry with price guarantees. Even so, thousands of dairy farms have gone out business in recent years. Strangely lacking from the BST disputations are price benefits for the consumer.

Science is wonderful. We can't survive without it. But who needs more milk? As for tomatoes, science could have drawn wisdom from an old country-Western song that names two things that money can't buy: true love and home-grown tomatoes.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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