Modified purple tomato may be coming to your supermarket

September 23, 2022 — No matter how you slice it, a genetically engineered purple tomato is just one step closer to appearing in U.S. supermarkets.

The British company developing the new purple fruit has passed a first test with US regulators, showing that genetic changes in the tomatoes do not expose the plants to a greater risk of pest damage.

The purple tomatoes are the first to pass the new SECURE law in the United States. The SECURE Act came into effect in phases between May 2020 and October 2021. The new rules from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) update the way the agency assesses genetically modified food, focusing more on the food itself than the process used to make it.

More than skin deep

Not to be confused with purple-skinned tomatoes, the tomatoes are purple inside and out. Genes from the purple snapdragon plant provide the color and boost levels of anthocyanins. Norfolk Plant Sciences says the tomatoes contain 10 times more of this antioxidant than regular tomatoes, therefore providing additional health benefits.

Also known as “super tomatoes,” the purple tomatoes can now be imported, cross state lines and be “released” into the environment. The company plans to supply seed packets to home gardeners once they receive final regulatory approval.

Norfolk used a common agricultural bacteria, aptly named: agrobacterium, to pass on the genetic changes to the Tomato variety Micro Tom. Subsequently, the company made the same changes to other tomato varieties by means of crossings.

Some genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on supermarket shelves can be difficult to identify. Many have been genetically altered to make them easier to ship or to last longer on the shelves, but these traits don’t change how they look. Norfolk Plant Sciences’ deep purple tomatoes, however, are likely to stand out in the produce aisle.

Step aside, eggplant. You’re not the only purple fruit in town. (And yes, both are fruits.)

A boost for food innovation?

“We are pleased that the USDA reviewed our bioengineered purple tomato and concluded that ‘from a plant pest risk perspective, this plant can be safely grown and used in breeding in the United States’”, says Nathan Pumplin, PhD, CEO of Norfolk Plant Science’s US-based commercial arm.

“This decision is an important step in enabling innovative scientists and small businesses to develop and test new, safe products with consumers and farmers,” said Pumplin.

The new federal law is designed to encourage innovation while reducing pest risks, said Andrew Walmsley, senior director of government affairs at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“We’ve been genetically modifying plants and animals since we’re no longer primarily hunters and gatherers,” Walmsley says. “Improved genetics offers a host of societal benefits, including, but not limited to, more nutritious foods.”

Concerns from the non-GMO camp

Not everyone is enthusiastic about these new tomatoes.

When asked what consumers should consider, “We want them to be aware that if this is a genetically modified product,” said Hans Eisenbeis, director of mission and messaging at the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization in Bellingham, WA. , which verifies consumer products that do not contain GMO ingredients.

“GMOs are quite ubiquitous in our food system,” he says. “It’s important that [consumers] know that this particular tomato is genetically engineered in case they choose to avoid GMOs.”

There are other ways to get high levels of anthocyanins, he says, including from blueberries.

Eisenbeis views the SECURE Act as a “deregulation” of GMOs in agriculture, weakening the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s ability to regulate these products.

One concern is that the same mechanism used to genetically modify this plant could be used for others, “potentially opening the door to genetic uses that are completely unregulated,” Eisenbeis says.

Recognizing that there are skeptics about GMO products, Pumplin says: “Skepticism can be a good start to learning when followed by the gathering of solid information. We encourage people to learn about the science-backed facts of GMOs and the ways in which GMOs can benefit consumers and the climate.”

“In addition, there are many non-GMO and certified organic products on the market, and consumers who choose to avoid GMOs have many good choices,” Pumplin adds. “New products enhanced with biotechnology will provide additional choices for some consumers interested in the benefits.”

How will they stack up?

Passing the SECURE rule’s first regulatory hurdle doesn’t mean the purple tomatoes can roll into stores yet. Regulations from several federal agencies may still apply, including the FDA, the EPA, and other USDA departments. The tomatoes may also need to meet Agriculture Marketing Service label requirements.

Norfolk Plant Sciences has voluntarily submitted a Food and Feed Safety and Nutrition Assessment Report to the FDA.

Time will tell what hurdles the purple tomato has yet to overcome before it can form a purple pyramid in the local produce aisle.

“We want to bring our tomatoes to the market with care and without haste,” says Pumplin.

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