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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Flavr Savr

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with author Belinda Martineau, about her new book, Fresh Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Food.


CURWOOD: In the late 1980s, scientists at a small Davis, California biotech company began working quietly and feverishly on what was to become the world's first-ever bio-engineered consumer food. The company was called Calgene, and the Flavr Savr tomato was the fruit of their labors. The scientists pulled off their genetic manipulation. The tomato got FDA approval, was test-marketed, and flopped miserably. Calgene hit hard times and Monsanto eventually bought out the startup. Now, there's an inside look at this failed biotech venture. It's called First Fruit: the Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Foods. The author is Belinda Martineau, a member of Calgene's original research team, and she joins me now. Welcome.

MARTINEAU: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Tell me, why was the Flavr Savr tomato created?

MARTINEAU: The way tomatoes are handled now, they're picked when they're absolutely green. There's not a speck of color on them. And then they're rock hard, so they can put them in a big truck and get them to the grocery store. Now, the dream was the idea that if you could prevent the cell walls from breaking down, you could keep a tomato firmer as it ripened on the vine. It would stay firm enough to survive trucking to market. And you would have a much better tasting tomato.

CURWOOD: And, if I understand this correctly, what you did was--not have its own genetic information that tells it to go ahead and rot --

MARTINEAU: Exactly. A gene was isolated from a tomato, flipped upside-down and backward, and re-inserted. And by doing that, that interfered with the expression of the natural gene. And, in this case, it was a gene encoding for a protein that's involved in breaking down cell walls in a tomato.

CURWOOD: Tell me why Calgene decided to do this genetic engineering on a special tomato, and then go into the huge fresh tomato business. I understand the expertise in genetic engineering, but in the tomato business?

MARTINEAU: Right, that's a good question. And that was debated at Calgene. And the idea was that the company, their business strategy was going to be one of vertical integration. That they would be in the tomato business from the farmer to the consumer, from the ground up.

CURWOOD: Talk to me a bit about how the scientists in your company communicated with the business people and the business people communicated with the scientists, and how that all got turned around as to what was said to the public.

MARTINEAU: Well, Calgene was a very small company. The scientists would get together with their business staff and hash things out. But time was of the essence, and we knew this was going to be the first product out there. And so, being as transparent and up-front as possible was in our best interest. And Calgene put a 1-800 number on the Flavr Savr tomato. So I think that just giving the public the opportunity to seek more information is going to go a long way toward easing the controversy over these foods.

CURWOOD: And how did the public respond?

MARTINEAU: The public loved the tomatoes. They were only sold in two grocery stores nationwide several days after we received approval from the FDA. And the story in Davis, where Calgene is located, they had to ration the tomatoes. The store owner said you could only buy two a day. And literally, Calgene couldn't keep up with the demand. They were that popular.

CURWOOD: So then, what went wrong? I mean, people are clamoring for this stuff. You have to ration the sale at the grocery store.

MARTINEAU: Well, people wanted to try. If they really could save flavor, then the taste tests, you know, where some people loved them, some people didn't think they were that great -- but the flavor wasn't really there.

CURWOOD: So, you got a tomato that would sit around looking prettier but really tasted no better.

MARTINEAU: Correct. Plus, on top of that, Calgene didn't have very much experience handling tomatoes. You know, we were gene jockeys and very new to the tomato business. And we didn't have, really, the experience to handle them as well as we should have.

CURWOOD: Other companies haven't been so transparent. In fact, the company that bought your company, Monsanto, has been pretty closely held about what it does to develop the bio-engineered products that it has. And it's also had a pretty tough time with consumers and protests over a number of their products. Any advice for the Monsantos of the world, from your experience?

MARTINEAU: My only concern, at this point, is that while that was a very transparent process, the FDA, when they proclaimed that the tomato was as safe as any other tomato, they also said, you know, this thing is so safe, we're not going to require this kind of a regulatory assessment for the products that come after it. And that's where I'm a little uneasy. The industry claims that every single company has come forward with every single product and gone through a consultation process with the FDA. And if that's so, then it should be no big deal to make that process mandatory.

CURWOOD: What came up in the course of all this that you really didn't anticipate?

MARTINEAU: Well, I feel I was a pioneer in this new technology. And we all believed that this was going to make a big difference, and that we were going to help feed the world. And what I learned was that the promise of a new technology is not as easy as all that. And there's a lot of hard work involved. And a lot of studies need to take place before you go to market with that technology, no matter how great its promise might be. And that we need to take it a little slower.

CURWOOD: Belinda Martineau's book is called First Fruit: the Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Foods. Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

MARTINEAU: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me here.

(Music up and under: Monks of Doom, "Tangue dia (for Astor Piazzola)")



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