Experts approve genetically altered tomatoes

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GENETICALLY engineered tomatoes are today expected to be approved by government experts for sale in tins.

Tinned tomatoes are Britain's top-selling canned food and the leading UK drugs and seeds group Zeneca is seeking Europe-wide approval for marketing a range of tinned tomato products using GMO - genetically modified organism - tomatoes. Its application to a British expert committee is the first step.

Canned tomatoes, are an essential ingredient in millions of British kitchens. We eat 230,000 tons of them, worth some pounds 160m, a year.

The Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes will consider Zeneca's bid the day after the frozen food chain Iceland announced that from 1 May it would use no GMO-derived ingredients in its ``own label'' groceries.

GMO products are made by taking DNA, the hereditary chemical, from one plant, animal or micro-organism and transferring it into another. They are found in more and more of the food on supermarket shelves. Iceland wants to be known as the only big food retailer offering consumers a choice.

The advisory committee has already considered Zeneca's application in detail, and will have a final report today. The GMO tomato, so far grown only in California, is already on sale as puree, sold by Safeway and Sainsbury, where it has taken half the market. The puree, labelled as coming from GMO fruit, is cheaper than ordinary kinds.

The long-life Zeneca tomato, known as TGT7-F, stays firm for longer after ripening, both on the stalk and after being picked. That makes it more resistant to moulds and better suited for highly mechanised farming and food processing.

The new property is passed from generation to generation through the seeds. The gene that confers it blocks the production of an enzyme that plays a key role in making ripe tomatoes go mushy.

The gene, a synthetic copy of a normal tomato gene, was attached to some bacterial DNA including a gene conferring resistance to an antibiotic, kanamycin. Then the collection of genes was permanently stitched into the tomato's own DNA.

The Government's advisory committee of 16 experts, mostly university professors, has accepted Zeneca's argument that its canned tomatoes will be just as safe and nutritious as the ordinary kind. It has heard evidence that the intense heat used in peeling and then sterilising GMO tomatoes kills any seeds and effectively destroys the antibiotic resistance.

Zeneca said it would sell GMO canned tomatoes in the European Union only if it was allowed to grow them on the continent too, in southern nations such as Spain. It has applied for the necessary EU approval.

To market a GMO food in Europe a company first needs approval in principle from one member state - and Zeneca has chosen Britain. That approval then applies across the EU, provided no other nations raise safety doubts which can be made to stick.

Zeneca says it will insist that the labels on the cans of tomato declare the contents as a GMO. ``We want to be very open about this, to ensure we bring people along with us,'' said Nigel Poole, the company's regulatory affairs manager.