COLUMN ONE : Toward a Tastier Tomato : Flavor long ago fell victim to early picking and breeding to withstand long hauls to market. But new methods, including genetic engineering, have sparked a race to put some bite back in the 'love apple.'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For centuries, the hot-red, juice-laden tomato has stirred deep passions.

Italians thought it was an aphrodisiac and embraced it as the "love apple." The British thought it was poisonous. Americans came to worship it--first for its flavor, then for the money it brought in.

For the past two decades, however, consumers have complained that modern agriculture has crossbred the commercial tomato to a pale pink fare-thee-well, virtually eradicating its flavor in the bargain.

This dissatisfaction--and the sales it has cost--have stirred passions anew, catapulting the tomato into a new era in its extraordinarily convoluted history.

A decade's work by competing researchers around the world is coming to fruition, enabling the tomato community to finally try to "get some flavor into this thing," in the words of one mega-grower, Robert Meyer of King City, Calif.

The race to be the first to the supermarket with a tasty tomato has two companies poised at the starting gate, several others lurching toward it and another claiming to have left everyone behind years ago.

Some of the new generation varieties were developed by growers' refinements in breeding.

The potential of genetic engineering has also emboldened scientists to enter the flavor arena. Science can identify and manipulate the genes responsible for hundreds of traits--color, disease resistance, size--creating new plants far more quickly and precisely than through cross-fertilization.

Genetic engineers are working on up to 50 fruits and vegetables, but the tomato--botanically well-suited to such a task and promising an especially nice commercial payoff--is front and center.

Most projects to rehabilitate the tomato concentrate on repairing its Achilles' heel: an internal ripening clock that is inconvenient for growers, pickers, packers, truckers and store produce managers.

The main reason tomatoes are so tasteless, experts explain, is that they are picked green in order to get them to distant markets without spoiling. Unlike the banana, for example, a tomato harvested early will halt development of its sugar and acidity.

This means the commercial varieties available in most climates most of the year have been robbed of flavor. Only those grown close to home July through September, often in back yards and sold at roadside stands, seem to make people happy.

U.S. government surveys show that consumers are more disappointed in tomatoes than in any other fresh food. Even the developer of McDonald's Big Mac rejected them as inadequate for his concoction.

Whoever fixes this situation could make a lot of money. Judging from the surge in sales when local tomatoes are available in late summer, the $3.5-billion annual U.S. market for fresh tomatoes could jump by another $1 billion if good tasting ones are available year-round.

The fruits of this research are beginning to arrive in supermarkets amid a bit of a tomato-throwing contest between two early entries: Calgene in Davis and DNA Plant Technology Corp. in Cinamminson, N.J. It is a competition that reflects loyalties to different technologies and breeding schemes.

Calgene's "MacGregor's," the first genetically engineered food, has a gene inserted backward to retard spoiling--a technology developed by scientists from UC Davis, long a tomato research hothouse.

Grown in California, Mexico and Florida from Calgene's patented FlavrSavr seeds, the MacGregor's is to be introduced in Midwestern supermarkets in several months.

DNA Plant Technology, called "Deenap" in industry circles, says it has slowed the spoilage process without genetically altering anything or going through the MacGregor's costly process of winning regulatory approval.

The evidence is a rich red model labeled Fresh World Farms that went on sale in April in about 40 supermarkets in Philadelphia and in Columbus, Ohio.

"We believe it is truly a blockbuster," said Richard Sykes, DNA Plant Technology's chief financial officer. "It's heartier, meatier" than the MacGregor's. "It weighs more. And Calgene, at this stage, appears to be still looking for their final variety."

Stephen Benoit, marketing vice president of Calgene's sales subsidiary in Chicago, replied: "There's no way they'd have any clue as to what we're doing."

In a position to declare a winner is tomato baron Meyer, who is under contract to grow both the Calgene and DNAP varieties. In its promotional materials, DNAP quotes him as saying its product is "the best-tasting tomato we have tried."

Asked about this, Meyer demurs: "They're both good."

By introducing the traditionally bred tomato now, DNAP not only beat MacGregor's to the market but spread the Fresh World Farms name in advance of the company's own genetically engineered tomato in 1995, says the biotechnology newsletter BioCentury.

That one will have a "switch" that turns off the ripening process while the tomato is still on the vine, a technology out of UC Berkeley being developed at DNAP's Oakland laboratories.

But the fact that DNAP has its own genetically altered tomato in the wings has not kept it from exploiting public doubts about genetic engineering in promoting its current entry: The company boasts that it has no foreign genes and is "100% natural."

Meanwhile, a technology developed at Israel's Hebrew University has led to a well-received tomato that is called the DiVine Ripe. Grown and marketed by Sun World International, it is already available most months in stores in the United States.

The DiVine Ripe was bred traditionally to use a long-known "natural" gene called RIN that inhibits ripening. Other companies--challenging the RIN patent--are moving "very fast" to develop their own versions, said Allen Stevens, research vice president at Petoseed, the California seed giant whose parent firm also owns venerable Burpee Seeds.

"It really knocked their socks off in southern Europe. It's almost impossible to sell anything else there," said Stevens, onetime UC Davis and Campbell Soup Co. tomato guru.

Another biotech tomato is due in 1995 from a joint venture of Zeneca, a subsidiary of the British firm Imperial Chemical Industries, and Petoseed.

The Zeneca-Petoseed project, recently joined by Los Angeles-based Hunt-Wesson Foods, is battling Calgene's anti-ripening patent in court, claiming to have invented the backward-gene technology first.

Others on the tomato trail: Monsanto, seed giant Pioneer and DuPont.

There is doubt in some quarters that improved flavor is the real goal; most of the new research is aimed at slowing the ripening process.

Better taste might be merely a happy side effect of projects designed to make tomatoes last longer without spoiling, thus saving money for everyone but the consumer, who will have to pay more for these new products.

"I think they're just talking about longer shelf life, not flavor (with the Calgene tomato)," said Joyce Goldstein, owner and chef at Square One, a San Francisco restaurant noted for its use of fresh produce. "If it's just a big watery thing that keeps for six months, who needs it?"

Goldstein expects little from these newest commercial efforts. And who can blame her, given the tomato's long journey in the past 100 years.

Discovered by Europeans in Mexico four centuries ago, by 1893 the tomato was deemed important enough in this country to protect from Mexican imports, and a court case over vegetable tariffs cloaked the tomato's very soul in ambiguity. Botanically a fruit, it was declared a vegetable by the U.S. Supreme Court.

It was not until the early 20th Century that the home-grown tomato began to take on the almost mythic quality it still has for many Americans, who recall its flavor through a misty lens of childhood memories.

Later, fueled partly by the advent of fast food and its need for tomato-based sauces, the old love apple really took off. By mid-century, it trailed only the potato in popularity among Americans.

At the same time, more sophisticated breeding, the mass marketing of food, the developing clout of the supermarket and efficient refrigerated transportation made it possible--and necessary in terms of competition--to get fresh fruits and vegetables to consumers year-round.

Growers began picking when produce was still the color of a dollar bill. That way, tomatoes were hard enough to survive packing and shipping, and they would forestall the spoilage that could wipe out riper shipments.

Flavor was all but forgotten. Growers wanted high yields and resistance to disease. Packers wanted uniform size. Retailers wanted the right color--normally achieved by spraying the green tomatoes with ethylene gas, a natural ripening agent--and above all, the wherewithal to survive the winter trip to Duluth.

"What difference does it make what it tastes like if we can't get it there?" asked Meyer, founder of Meyer Tomatoes.

The commercial tomato even became exhibit A in political and journalistic attacks on agribusiness, academia, mass marketing and other forces blamed for general societal corruption.

Florida academics, funded by an industry that was being protected from Mexican tomatoes by the U.S. government, had invented the notorious MH-1 tomato. It was said to be tougher than the bumper of an automobile and thus capable of getting to Buffalo in January without a blemish.

The tomato people at UC Davis were condemned--and sued--for inventing the mechanical tomato harvester, a breakthrough that made California the dominant force in the processing industry, incidentally eliminating thousands of seasonal jobs and creating a need for even tougher tomatoes than the MH-1. (Processed tomatoes are made into ketchup, juice and other products.)

Amid the changes, per-capita consumption climbed as fast-food restaurants used up vats of fresh, diced, tasteless tomatoes. Per-acre yields skyrocketed by 300%. Spoilage and labor costs plummeted. And New Yorkers had tomatoes, of sorts, in December.

Today, the fresh tomato community seems eager for the redemption promised by the new generation. These experts insist that today's commercial varieties--allowed to ripen on the vine, handled gently, kept above 55 degrees--are plenty tasty. But rarely are they handled this way.

"Economics are what's driving it," said Petoseed's Stevens. "As a consequence, the quality is lousy. The system has developed to a point where you can't even go to the supermarket in summer and get a decent tomato."

The next generation--due in the late 1990s--will actually attempt to deal directly with the flavor bugaboo via genes that control sugar and acidity. Still, there are no guarantees. Researchers themselves disagree on what makes a good tasting tomato, and many Americans have grown up without knowing how a tomato is supposed to taste.

Even if these new products pass muster with connoisseurs, the ultimate question is whether regular people will pay $2 or more per pound for a delicious biotech job when they can get that familiar cardboard flavor for $1.

"The jury's still out on that," Stevens said.

Attack of the Bland Tomatoes

Americans love their home-grown tomatoes, but when it comes to eating many of the supermarket varieties, nearly everyone complains about the taste.

Altering the Ripening Process

If tomatoes were picked after they started to turn red, they would spoil long before reaching consumers in distant cities. So they are picked green, before sugar and acidity are fully developed, and later treated with ethylene gas, the tomato's natural ripening agent. How it works:

1) Tomatoes are picked while still green.

2) Tomatoes are brought to a warehouse, where they are washed, graded and crated.

3) Crated tomatoes are put in a ripening room, where ethylene gas is released.

4) Four to seven days later, red but often tasteless tomatoes are ready for consumption.

Destination

More than half the tomatoes grown nationally end up on produce stands at the market. To market: 56.1% Ketchup sauces: 25.3% Paste: 12.6% Juice: 3.3% Canned: 2.7% *

Tomato Facts:

An American eats an average of 17 to 18 pounds of tomatoes a year.

About 95% of U.S. tomatoes are grown in fields; the other 5% are grown in hothouses or hydroponically.

Of the tomatoes grown in California, 90% are used for ketchup, juices and canned products.

Florida leads the nation in fresh market tomatoes, producing about 55% of the crop; 35% are grown in California.

Sources: California Tomato Board; UC Davis; industry experts

Researched by ADAM S. BAUMAN / Los Angeles Times

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