RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. H Calgene Inc., target of anactivist campaign demanding that it label its geneticallyengineered tomato as such, is evidently espousing MarkTwain's precept: "If you can't lick 'em, jine 'em." Thomas L.Churchwell, president and chief executive officer of CalgeneFresh Inc., showed a multi-colored tomato sticker to a morningsession here on "Safety and Acceptance of Biotech Foods" at theSeventh International Biotechnology Meeting and Exhibition.
[As of mid-Wednesday, the event had registered 1,598participants, up since Tuesday's body count of 1.368.]
Calgene's circular, silver-dollar-sized label identifies its deepred fruit as coming from "MacGregor's Farm," and states upfront that it has been genetically engineered for better tasteand slower softening.
When it completes the FDA's regulatory process and reachesthe marketHChurchwell hopes by summer's endHconsumerswill find it packed like chocolate bon-bons on excelsior-paddedindividual recesses in single-layer flats, and premium-priced.They will also find at point-of-sale a four-page, saucer-shapedleaflet, describing how antisense DNA and selective-markergenes have enabled FlavrSavrs to ripen on the vine, andpreserve their flavor for seven to ten days longer than dogreen-picked, gas-ripened fruit now sold in most groceries andsupermarkets.
"It's empirically testable," he declared, "that you tell the wholetruth, and let the consumer design the label. It's notcomplicated."
Churchwell asked his audience of biotechnology-industryspecialists for a show of hands to elicit: (1) that his listenersnearly all (85%) buy tomatoes; (2) they don't like them; (3) thatthey basically trust the FDA regulatory process; (4) but wouldlike some comprehension of what they were buying. Then hemade the point that even such sophisticated experts areconsumers first.
Calgene's "commitment to labeling" involves close consultationwith the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safetyand Applied Nutrition. That body's Linda Kahl took part in thepanel. Regarding genetically engineered foods, Churchwell said,"consumers need to know two things: One, that the FDA hasregulated the product, whatever that means; two, they wouldlike to have labels, because it gives them the right to chooseHbetween a good-tasting and an outrageously tasting tomato."Moreover, he added, a label imparts a sense of honesty to theproduct. He predicted that 80 percent will buy the FlavrSavrfruit.
At an afternoon follow-on session, biologist Rebecca J. Goldburg,whose Environmental Defense Fund has spearheaded the callfor labeling genetically altered foods, applauded Calgene'sinitiative. "It's very positive," she said, "taking the lead as theyhave."
Tomatoes, being high-value items, can be readily branded. Butwhat about crook-neck squash? Thomas E. Stenzel, president ofthe International Food Information Council, an industryorganization, raised what became known as "the squashsyndrome." A squash-ravaging virus, he said, can destroy 80percent of a farmer's crop. Squash implanted with a viral-resistance gene won't taste better, but will save growers H andsociety H four-fifths of their acreage and capital, and four-fifths of soil erosion.
"So labeling," Stenzel argued, "won't benefit consumers directly,but will bring huge societal benefits." Clearly, he concluded, "ifa retailer has to keep the vegetable in two bins, one labeled'genetically engineered,' few would buy the transgenic squash,and society would lose the benefits."
Queried on this scenario, Goldburg demurred that it "over-simplified the issue to black-and-white." More pertinent, sheinsisted, was the consumer's right to know what additives itcontained and the FDA's obligation to require they be labeled,whatever the consequence to their marketability.
FDA's Linda Kahl once again reminded the participants that heragency's sole mandate is to enforce the pure food and druglaws, not to stretch their language, nor attempt to rightsociety's wrongs.
Not all the products in Calgene's pipeline will escape the squashsyndrome. "It's easy to label whole fruits, like tomatoes,"Churchwell allowed, "but our next product out of the pipeline isa herbicide-resistant cotton, of which the pressed seed is fed tocattle.
"Its benefit to the ecology will be enormous," he emphasized,but noted that "minute, probably undetectable amounts of theforeign gene might get into the human food chain." Here too, hedeclared, "FDA's policy works very well; they will regulate itappropriately." He does not think it will be necessary to labelthe cottonseed.
The afternoon session was titled, "Preparing the Public forGenetically Engineered Foods," so naturally the subject arose ofJeremy Rifkin's Pure Food Campaign. The activist claims that1,500 top restaurant chefs have pledged never to usegenetically engineered foods, but Churchwell notes that "onlyeight chefs have been identified." Even if the four-digit numberis correct, he doubts that "such an elitist argument will havemuch impact on the consuming public."
As for Rifkin's announced plan to picket, leaflet and boycottMcDonald's restaurants starting April 17 for the chain's failureto forswear bovine somatotropin, the Calgene executive'scomment was: "Good luck!"
-- David N. Leff Science Editor
(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.