Calgene got the final all-clear sign from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday to grow, unrestricted and unregulated, its genetically engineered tomato in the large quantities it needs for widespread commercial marketing next summer.
USDA officials, in a meeting at Calgene’s Davis, Calif., headquarters, noted that the ruling was the first of its kind from the federal agency.
The determination comes at the close of a public comment period that began in July, when the Agriculture Department first announced its intentions to drop regulation of Calgene’s tomato. Calgene still anticipates a final ruling from the Food and Drug Administration, which in late May hinted that it too would not regulate sales of the tomato.
“We will not launch the test marketing until we have the final (FDA) opinion,” said Roger Salquist, Calgene’s chief executive. “But this is the most important step. The USDA ruling had to come first. It takes months to scale up production to have enough (tomatoes) to market. . . . Everything appears to be moving along in good order now.”
Short of a last-minute hitch, the Calgene tomato will be the first food produced through genetic manipulation to reach the consumer.
The tomato has been engineered to last longer after it has ripened, which means it can be allowed to ripen on the vine, and thus be better tasting. In some regions, the tomato will be marketed under the brand name MacGregor’s.
Meanwhile, rival DNA Plant Technology said it will unveil its longer-lasting, genetically engineered tomato on Monday. The company, based in Cinnaminson, N.J., is using its “transwitch” technology to develop the tomato.
While it will be at least 1994 before DNAP can sell its genetically engineered tomato, Salquist said:"We’re happy to have them in the market. It’s a $3.5-billion market, and I’d be happy to get $500 million of it and leave the rest to others.”
Calgene uses “antisense” genetic manipulation, in which a gene with an undesired trait is cloned and reinserted into the cell in reverse. The cloned, reversed gene then binds to the original gene and shuts it off. In the case of the tomatoes, the targeted gene is the one that triggers the rotting process.
In “transwitch” technology, the undesired gene is cloned and reinserted, and this doubling essentially cancels out the gene’s ability to “express” itself. DNA Plant Technology is using this technique on other plants as well.
A third company, ICI Seeds, a unit of Imperial Chemical Industries of England, is challenging one of Calgene’s antisense patents. Its development of a longer-lasting tomato through antisense technology is being funded by Hunt-Wesson, a Fullerton-based tomato-processing giant.
While tomatoes are leading the march of genetically engineered foods to the marketplace, many other food and fiber products, including oils, potatoes and cotton, are being developed by agricultural biotechnology firms.