Flavor Savr - the Genetically Engineered Tomato

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The Flavor Savr Tomato

The first genetically engineered tomato was called Flavor Savr. It was created by the California-based company Calgene in 1992 and received FDA approval on 18 May 1994. Flavor Savr tomatoes appeared in small outlets in California and the MidWest that same year. They bore the MacGregor label. There was no Genetically Modified (GM) label as the FDA thought this unnecessary. The FDA reasoned that as there was no obvious health risk and the nutritional content and characteristics were the same as conventional tomatoes, there was no need to identify this tomato as different from the non-modified ones.

Reasons for creating the genetically modified tomato:

The reasons for creating genetically modified tomatoes were because of the potential advantages of genetically modified foods.

  • In the present age, vegetables and fruits are not commercially cultivated merely for the local market, but are intended for shipping over long distances to nation-wide and international markets.
  • Ripe fruits and vegetables have soft skins and can easily be damaged during handling and processing. They can also rot in the time taken to ship and get them to the shops.
  • In order to ensure easier handling and longer shelf life, vegetables and fruits are harvested when still green, and then artificially ripened with ethylene gas. The drawback in this is that the artificially ripened fruit and vegetables do not have the tasty flavor of their naturally ripened counterparts.

Calgene’s intention was to create a vine-ripened tomato that was both long-lasting and tasty. They selected the tomato for this experiment as a tomato is comparatively easier to modify genetically and they hoped that the experience would then make it easier to modify other fruits and vegetables. It took Calgene ten years to create the Flavor Savr.

They inserted an antisense gene into the tomato that interfered with the production of the plant enzyme polygalacturonase. This slowed down the rotting process. It, however, did not prevent the skin of the tomato from softening as it ripened. This made the tomato susceptible to bursting when handled and processed. To avoid this, it had to be harvested like the green non-modified tomatoes.

This wasn’t the only difficulty facing Calgene -

  • They selected a rather inferior, not very tasty variety of tomato as the basis for creating the Flavor Savr. This gave the Flavor Savr a blander taste than non-GM tomatoes.
  • They did not look into crossing the Flavor Savr with tastier tomato varieties using traditional cross-breeding methods.
  • They made business management mistakes that left to heavy losses and no profit.
  • They were involved in legal wranglings with competitor Monsanto.

As a result of Calgene’s business woes, production of the Flavor Savr tomatoes ceased. Sometime later, Monsanto took over Calgene.

Zeneca’s GM Tomato Puree:

Around the same time as Calgene, Zeneca, backed by Campbell Soups, was looking to create GM tomatoes too. The two resolved possible legal issues by agreeing that Calgene would create the market-fresh type of tomatoes and Zeneca would create the tomatoes required in food processing.

Zeneca’s tomatoes were grown in California in 1994 and approved by the FDA in 1996. Their GM tomato puree was sold in the UK by Safeway and Sainsbury as ‘Safeway Double Concentrated Tomato Puree’ and ‘Sainsbury’s Californian Tomato Puree’. The GM purees were labeled as such and were sold at a lower price than competing non-GM purees. Consumers liked the Zeneca purees and for a few years sales were good.

Then concerns about the dangers of genetically modified foods cropped up. Questions about safety issues grew louder and the product was withdrawn from the market.

Concerns about genetically modified tomatoes:

In addition to the gene that retarded the ripening process, GM tomatoes had a secondary genetic modification in the form of a gene segment conferring resistance to the antibiotic Kanamycin. This marker was added to help identify GM plants - it had no other function.

Researchers were concerned that there may be a danger with this genetically modified food. Their concern was that if the Flavor Savr was commercially grown, environmental bacteria might uptake the antibiotic-resistant gene segment, develop a resistance to Kanamycin and then develop resistances to other antibiotics as well. If this happened, it would certainly spell trouble for human health.

Several studies in the 1990’s showed that lab rats had developed stomach lesions after eating the GM tomatoes. However, many scientists have questioned the methodology and worth of these studies.

Consumer concerns about the dangers of genetically modified organisms surfaced after the outbreak of the Mad Cow Disease in Europe. While there may certainly be some advantages of genetically modified foods, they still get a bad press, largely due to concerns over their safety. To date there haven’t been any studies that have demonstrated any long term negative health affects of genetically modified foods.

However, consumer confidence remains low. Shoppers need and want to know what they’re buying. When companies cannot or will not label genetically modified foods, they are viewed with a great deal of mistrust by the general public. Media headlines about so-called “Frankenstein foods” exacerbate their fears.