Canned tomatoes get gene treatment

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Canned tomatoes - Britain's top selling tinned food - may soon be available in a genetically engineered form. Leading drugs and seeds group Zeneca is seeking government approval to market and sell the product.

Peeled, canned tomatoes - whole or chopped - sell in the same quantities as baked beans and are a staple in millions of British kitchens. We eat 230,000 tonnes of canned tomatoes - a market worth about pounds 160m - a year.

Once a genetically engineered form penetrates this market then the revolutionary and somewhat feared new biotechnology can truly be said to have been embraced by Britons.

The British experience with genetically engineered tomato puree suggests the canned variety can succeed.

Since being launched a year ago, this puree has proved very popular in two leading supermarket chains, Safeway and Sainsbury's, taking half the market.

It is sold under own-label brands and the packaging carries the information that the food is derived from a "genetically modified organism" (GMO).

Zeneca, which was once part of chemical giant ICI, owns the rights to a GMO variety of tomato which, when ripe, stays firm for longer, both on the stalk and after being picked.

This variety is used to make the puree and is the one which Zeneca plans to can. Genetic engineering was used to insert a gene from one kind of tomato among the genes of the target variety, using a bacterium as the carrier for the new DNA.

This gene, passed on from generation to generation through the seeds, acts to block the production of an enzyme which plays a key role in making ripe tomatoes become mushy. The new, long-life tomato suits modern farming and food processing methods and is therefore cheaper.

The genetically-engineered tomato puree, sold by Safeway and Sainsbury's, is cheaper than conventional brands, which explains why it has sold so well.

Now Zeneca has quietly applied to the Government's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes for permission to sell the peeled tomato in cans.

It made no public announcement, but its application appears on the agenda for next week's committee meeting.

The GMO tomato also includes a gene conferring resistance to an antibiotic, kanamycin, a drug used to kill bacteria . This was needed in order to create the new, long-life variety.

But Nigel Poole, head of regulatory affairs for Zeneca seeds, said this gene and all the others were destroyed during the pre-canning processing of the tomatoes at high temperatures. The heat fragments the DNA genetic material.

``We've not yet decided if we will seek to market the GMO canned tomatoes, and if we do it'll be about two years before they're on the supermarket shelves,'' he said.

Zeneca would use the supermarket own brands as it did with the puree. It would also insist that the label on the cans declared the contents as a GMO.

``We will also want to grow the tomatoes here in Europe, in Spain and other warmer countries'' he said. The tomatoes for the puree are grown in California.