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Scientists get the pip over GM tomatoes

IT COULD turn out to be the ultimate GM nightmare for a British biotechnology company, whose employees were pictured on the front of a national newspaper eating genetically modified tomatoes.

The photograph in The Daily Telegraph of Dr Nigel Poole and colleagues from Zeneca Plant Science showed the scientists munching their way through whole tomatoes, seeds included. Now the company is to be reported to the Government's health and safety watchdog for possible breach of the regulations governing the escape of GM organisms into the environment.

Officials fear that the seeds of the GM tomatoes could have passed straight through the digestive systems of the Zeneca staff and germinated in a sewage farm somewhere in deepest Berkshire.

Professor John Beringer, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, said yesterday that he has no option but to report Zeneca to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which is responsible for prosecutions under the regulations governing the containment of GM plants and animals.

"If they were knowingly eating the tomatoes including the seeds then they are probably bringing about a release to the environment," Professor Beringer said. "My colleagues are uncertain whether it would be examined as a breach of the containment regulations, or whether it would be deemed a deliberate release. It's probably a breach of containment."

Dr Poole told the newspaper that over the past 10 years about 40 staff at Zeneca have eaten fresh GM tomatoes, which have not been approved for sale in Britain except in a tomato puree where the seeds are destroyed in the process. His wife and two grown-up children have also been willing guinea pigs. "We did it to show confidence in our research," he said.

When asked whether the caption to the photograph was correct in describing the team eating GM tomatoes, Dr Poole said they were in fact ordinary tomatoes because there were no ripe GM versions around at the time. However, he confirmed that he and his colleagues have eaten GM tomatoes and their seeds for many years, the last time just before Christmas.

A gene in Zeneca's GM tomato has been altered to give it a longer shelf life, allowing it to be picked when it is ripe rather than green.

The research came out of Nottingham University in the Eighties and was developed into a commercial product by ICI Seeds - which later became Zeneca - led by Simon Best, business development manager.

Mr Best was asked in 1989 whether the GM tomatoes tasted nice. He replied that eating them was not allowed: "If people swallowed the tomato seeds the plants could end up growing in a sewage farm somewhere and this would be an unauthorised release of a genetically engineered organism."

Bio-technology, page 4