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GM purple tomatoes from Norfolk Healthy Produce
Norfolk Healthy Produce is planning a limited-scale launch of tomatoes engineered to contain high levels of polyphenols found in blueberries, blackcurrants, acai, and pomegranates later this year. Image credit: Norfolk Healthy Produce

GM tomatoes are coming back, but this time they’re purple, and packed with new health benefits

May 2, 2023

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) still have an image problem when it comes to food. But attitudes are evolving, insists Norfolk Healthy Produce, a startup on a mission to change hearts and minds, one purple tomato at a time.

This is not the first rodeo for GM tomatoes, acknowledges Norfolk president and CEO Dr. Nathan Pumplin, who is gearing up to launch tomatoes genetically engineered to produce high levels of health-promoting anthocyanins in the US later this year.

First came the FLAVR SAVR tomato, which biotech company Calgene engineered for increased shelf-life and fungal resistance. FLAVR SAVR hit the US market in 1994 but disappeared in 1997 after Calgene was acquired by Monsanto.

While anti-GMO sentiment has been blamed for the FLAVR SAVR’s rapid demise, says Pumplin, supply chain challenges were largely at fault (notably, the tomatoes were too soft to be reliably machine-picked and transported if harvested ripe).

“Calgene tried to launch very quickly and build a supply chain from scratch within a year with varieties that weren’t optimal for the growing locations or product categories they were going into,” claims Pumplin.

In the UK, he notes, cans of GM tomato puree [produced under license by Zeneca with FLAVR SAVR tomatoes] performed well in leading supermarkets in the mid-1990s. However, the tide turned in 1998 when retailers soured on GMOs amid a media frenzy around “Frankenstein Foods” stoked in part by controversial comments about the health risks of GM potatoes from Rowett Institute scientist Dr. Arpad Pusztai. By 1999, the product had been ditched.

GM produce that delivers a clear consumer benefit 

So what’s changed since then that gives Norfolk Healthy Produce the confidence that US consumers will embrace GM tomatoes today?

According to Pumplin, who is planning a limited-scale launch of purple tomatoes later this year, “I think more people are beginning to see the huge potential of genetic engineering to impact sustainability, the nutritional quality of our food, and food security.

“What Cathie [Professor Cathie Martin at the John Innes Centre in the UK, who developed the technology behind Norfolk’s purple tomatoes] recognized early on, was an opportunity to engage people with beautiful nutritious food that delivers a clear consumer benefit.

“There’s a huge demand for the attributes that these tomatoes bring, and we believe that we can get past this stigma around GMOs with great products and companies in this space that are successful. We want to be held up as a shining example of this and really open up the market for ourselves but also for others.”

‘Overwhelmingly positive’ media reaction

Meanwhile, “Gen Z and Millennials are much more positive than older generations about GMOs,” he claims. “Look at the success of the Impossible Burger [which features genetically engineered soy protein and a meaty-tasting heme protein made in fermentation tanks by genetically engineered yeast and features a bioengineered label].”

He adds: “When we got regulatory approval from the USDA last year, I was really surprised to see that the media attention was overwhelmingly positive.” Packers and shippers of produce are also excited about the potential wow factor of purple tomatoes, “as they’re all looking for the next big thing that will make a splash,” claims Pumplin. “Our product offers clear differentiation.”

“We also take a big lesson from Calgene; we will launch in focused metro areas, with shorter supply chains and with a product that we understand and can deliver. We have a huge advantage, being powered with extra nutrition, taste, and a remarkable, differentiated color, but we need to deliver a consistent, quality product to consumers to succeed.”

Anthocyanins throughout the flesh, as well as the skin

So how are Pumplin’s tomatoes different from purple-hued tomatoes on sale at many grocery stores?

Cut open one of these tomatoes and you’ll see that the purple pigment (featuring the beneficial antioxidants) is limited to the skin, he says. “In our tomatoes, the flesh is purple, as we have accumulation throughout the entire fruit, not just the outside.” 

Dr. Martin’s breakthrough was to activate the pathway that produces the anthocyanins in the fruit of the tomato by taking two genes from the snapdragon flower that are activated during the ripening process, explains Pumplin.

“These genes are like switches that turn on the natural purple pigments of tomatoes and we get these higher levels of antioxidants. And the great thing is that we can make any kind of tomato variety purple, from a large heirloom slicer to a sweet little cherry tomato, making them extra nutritious.”

More days of freshness

Norfolk’s purple tomatoes also come with the added benefit of a longer shelf life, he claims. “The antioxidants slow the softening, so they give you more days of freshness.”

He adds: “One thing that’s really frustrating is when you go to the store and buy a tomato that looks great, but tastes of nothing. The reason? Most commercial tomatoes are bred not to ripen fully, which is how they can go through the supply chain.

“What our tomato allows us to do is have a fully ripe, fully flavored tomato like the heirloom varieties that you pick in your backyard garden and three days later they’re mush. It allows us to have that full flavor and still get through the supply chain.”

GM purple tomatoes
While other attempts have been made to increase anthocyanins levels in tomatoes using both genetic engineering and traditional breeding, success has been limited to increasing levels in the peel of the tomato, which represents a small proportion of the tomato’s weight, claims Norfolk Healthy Produce. “Some of these purple-skinned tomatoes are available on the market, but the levels of anthocyanins present are significantly lower than in our purple-fleshed fruit.” Image credit: Norfolk Healthy Produce

The regulatory pathway: Green light from USDA, still waiting for the FDA thumbs up

A wholly-owned subsidiary of UK-based Norfolk Plant Sciences, Norfolk Healthy Produce satisfied the USDA that its purple tomatoes present no additional safety risks vs conventional tomatoes last year, and is now going through the FDA’s voluntary pre-market consultation process for new plant varieties, says Pumplin.

“We answered a round of questions one month ago, and we are waiting now to find out if they are satisfied or whether they have any further questions.”

But he added: “We appreciate the work and communication from the FDA, but we are also disappointed that our business is being held back by this process; we could be selling tomatoes right now. The USDA process—which they claim should take six months—took us one year, and the FDA [process] has been ongoing now for over three years.  It is one more factor that favors large, existing companies and prevents small and medium-sized companies from competing in the market.”

The go to market strategy: Test launch 2023, grocery roll out 2024 

As for the go to market strategy, he says, the plan is to launch in US restaurants and farmers markets later this year, followed by a wider retail launch in 2024. “We’re in the process of building up supplies of our seeds and building supply chain partnerships with excellent growers and distributors and getting varieties that play really well in their systems.”

He adds: “The business model to start with is that we’re a consumer-focused brand, and that’s out of necessity. We’re creating a new category of fresh foods that are better because of biotechnology and we want to make sure that that message is delivered to consumers in a way that’s understandable and appealing.

“Moving into the future, there are a lot of brands that would fit nicely with the story we’re telling, so we’re certainly in conversations about collaborations, but our starting point is to build a brand.”

As for the seeds, he adds: “We’ve had a lot of people in the US sign up on our website wanting to receive seeds. We’re waiting to complete the process with FDA and then we’ll be able to distribute seeds to home gardeners.”

Funding: ‘We are fortunate not to be forced to do a deal with unfavorable terms’

When it comes to funding, says Pumplin, “We have paused our traditional seed fundraising for now, for two reasons. One, the macroeconomic environment is extremely poor for startups now, and we are fortunate not to be forced to do a deal with unfavorable terms. Two, we have a lean structure and are able to continue on our path to market with funds from our current investors. Because of our progress, we have an accelerated path with channel partners and a lot of wind in our sails.

“We now have fantastically delicious purple tomatoes to share with produce buyers, and we completed our first product reveal last week at Ginkgo Bioworks’ Ferment event. Feedback is overwhelmingly positive. The tomatoes taste great, and together with the added nutrition, our retail customers are confident that we will have a strong product that consumers will repurchase.”
The Norfolk Healthy Produce team
L-R: CTO Dr. Jessica Louie, greenhouse manager Ian Baker, president and CEO Dr. Nathan Pumplin. Image credit: Norfolk Healthy Produce

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