Modified purple tomato may be coming to your grocery store

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Sept. 23, 2022 — No matter how you slice it, a genetically engineered purple tomato just got one step closer to showing up in US grocery stores.

The British company developing the new purple fruit has passed an initial test with US regulators showing genetic modifications to the tomatoes do not put the plants at greater risk of pest damage.

The purple tomatoes are the first to pass the new SECURE law in the United States. The SECURE Act became law in several phases between May 2020 and October 2021. The new US Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules update how the agency reviews genetically modified foods, focusing more on the food itself than the process used to make it.

More than superficial

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 increase the anthocyanin content. According to Norfolk Plant Sciences, tomatoes contain 10 times more of this antioxidant than regular tomatoes and therefore offer additional health benefits.

Also known as “super tomatoes,” the purple tomatoes can now be imported, cross national borders, and “released” into the environment. The company plans to make packets of seeds available to home gardeners once they receive final regulatory approval.

Norfolk used an aptly named common agricultural bacterium agrobacterium, to deliver the genetic modifications to the Tomato variety Micro Tom. Next, the company introduced the same changes into other tomato varieties by crossing them.

Some genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on grocery shelves can be difficult to identify. Many are genetically modified to make them easier to ship or last longer on shelves, but these traits don’t change their appearance. However, Norfolk Plant Sciences’ deep purple tomatoes will likely stand out in the product aisle.

Move, 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 crop pest risk perspective, this plant is safe to grow and be used in breeding in the United States,” says Nathan Pumplin, PhD, CEO of the US based commercial arm of Norfolk Plant Science.

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

The new federal law was designed to encourage innovation while reducing pest risk, says Andrew Walmsley, senior director for government affairs at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“We’ve been genetically modifying plants and animals since we stopped being primarily hunter-gatherers,” says Walmsley. “Improved genetics offer a variety of societal benefits, including but not limited to more nutritious foods.”

Concerns from the non-GMO camp

Not everyone is excited about these new tomatoes.

When asked what consumers should be aware of, “We want them to be aware that this is a genetically modified product,” says Hans Eisenbeis, director of mission and news at the Non-GMO Project, one non-profit organization in Bellingham, WA that verifies consumer products that contain non-GMO ingredients.

“GMOs are pretty ubiquitous in our food system,” he says. “This is important [consumers] know that that particular tomato has been genetically engineered if they choose to avoid GMOs.”

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

Eisenbeis views the SECURE law changes as “deregulation” of GMOs in agriculture and weakening the ability of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service 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 applications that are completely unregulated,” Eisenbeis says.

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

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

How will they stack?

Clearing the first regulatory hurdle of the SECURE rule doesn’t mean the purple tomatoes can hit stores just yet. Regulations from multiple federal agencies may still apply, including the FDA, EPA, and other divisions of the USDA. The tomatoes may also need to meet Agriculture Marketing Service label requirements.

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

Time will tell what other hurdles the purple tomato must overcome before it can form a purple pyramid on your local produce shelf.

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

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