IS TIME RIPE FOR 3-MONTH TOMATO?

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The battle is heating up to market a tomato with the longest possible shelf life. The Flavr Savr tomato, the first genetically altered whole food to hit the U.S. market, is about to get some competition, if a biotechnology company here gets the government's green light. The firm, DNA Plant Technology, has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture for unrestricted rights to grow

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The battle is heating up to market a tomato with the longest possible shelf life. The Flavr Savr tomato, the first genetically altered whole food to hit the U.S. market, is about to get some competition, if a biotechnology company here gets the government's green light. The firm, DNA Plant Technology, has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture for unrestricted rights to grow its patented genetically engineered tomato, which officials say could have a shelf life of up to three months. That would outdo the Davis, Calif.-based Calgene Inc.'s Flavr Savr tomato, which is said to have a three-week shelf life. Calgene spent five years and $20 million developing and waiting for government approval to market its tomato, which was introduced last spring. DNAP's tomato could be in test-marketing in some 50 stores in the Mid-Atlantic states by next spring, say company officials, if all goes well with the approval process. On Sept. 21, DNAP requested final approval from USDA to grow the tomato, which the company has been field-testing for the last three years under USDA permits. The final approval process is a formality that most growers need to go through when introducing a new crop, said a USDA spokesman.

DNAP's tomato is a genetically engineered version of a premium variety it currently markets in about 1,000 supermarkets in the East and Midwest under the brand name Fresh World Farms. The new version is said to have the same taste, texture and color characteristics of the original tomato.

The only difference is that the gene that produces ethylene gas, which causes tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables to ripen, has essentially been turned off, said DNAP spokeswoman Ellen Martin. "This allows us to totally control the ripening process," Martin said. "We'll be able to leave the tomato on the vine longer than a conventional gas-green tomato so that it will be able to develop a better, sweeter flavor and texture without ripening." Retailers or packers will then be able to artificially ripen the tomato by applying ethylene gas, much the same way many retailers currently ripen bananas, said Martin. She said she expects the tomato to retail for $1.99 a pound, the same price Calgene charged for its Flavr Savr tomato when it was released. Calgene's retail price has since dropped in some stores to $1.59 a pound.