16 February 1996

Modified tomato purée is out – and selling fast

By Robert Harris

"Frankenfood"it is not! Puree produced from genetically modified tomatoes went on sale throughout the UKlast week. Consumer uptake has been good, according to participating supermarkets.

GENETICALLY-engineered tomato purée is selling fast in two of the UKs biggest supermarket chains, offsetting fears that consumer resistance could prove to be the new industrys biggest downfall.

Just under 7ha (17 acres) of the new tomatoes, enough for 800,000 cans, were grown in California this season by Zeneca Plant Sciences and Peto Seeds, says Nigel Poole, Zenecas group manager.

Sainsburys and Safeway both launched the resulting purée as a new own brand product at the start of last week in 160 stores across the UK on a trial "case by case" basis. Although cans are clearly marked "produced from genetically-modified tomatoes", initial demand has been buoyant.

"The only complaint we have had is from customers who had heard about it but were unable to obtain it in our other stores," claims a Safeway spokesman.

Supplies of the purée have been accompanied by information leaflets which aim to explain the technology and approvals process.

Prof Poole believes the "phenomenal sales" are due to a combination of price, quality and curiosity.The tomatoes are more robust than their conventional counterparts, thanks to the introduction of an enzyme-blocking gene which allows them to remain firm even when ripe and delays rotting, he explains.

As a result, fruit can be left on the plant longer, allowing it to develop a fuller flavour and providing a bigger harvest window. Less is wasted during picking and transport, so the tomatoes are cheaper to grow. That has enabled supermarkets to discount the product price by almost 10%.

Public informed

The public have also been kept well informed by a curious media, he adds. "Its a novel product invented in Britain and there has been a lot of interest. We have been totally open about the technology involved, and it has mostly been reported responsibly."

Other tomato-based products will follow, and eventually the fruit itself, he predicts. Although that does not directly involve UK growers, the spinoff will, he believes.

"I think it will make it easier for other companies with similar products to enter the market. It should help to ease the perceived public fears."

Ian Black, technical manager at AgrEvo agrees. His company is developing herbicide-tolerant varieties of oilseed rape which will be available to UK growers within two years, and sugar beet should follow a few years after that.

"This launch has opened the door and we welcome it. If public debate is going to happen, this will trigger it. Customer resistance is difficult to assess. But it seems the anticipated pressures may not be as strong as we might have thought."


TOMATOPUREEPLUSES


&#8226 First genetically-modified food in UK.

&#8226 Perceived as cheap and good quality.

&#8226 Sales buoyant.

&#8226 Paving the way for home-grown crops.