(Nov. 1) As you keep your mental dial tuned to the latest industry buzz, you realize that biotechnology and irradiation aren’t making much noise. But that doesn’t mean the technologies have disappeared.

In the field of biotechnology, transgenic crop production has soared to 167 million acres worldwide since genetically modified plants were introduced on a large-scale basis in 1996. Of those acres, 63% are in the United States, and most of the acreage is soybeans, cotton and field corn, according to California Agriculture magazine.

The genetically modified plants introduced so far were developed to resist disease and improve yield. Those biotech applications aren’t as sexy or newsworthy to consumers and the media as items that are genetically modified for better flavor or higher nutrient levels.

But stay tuned.

CONSUMER BENEFITS

Autar Mattoo, supervisory plant biochemist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the Beltsville Agriculture Research Center, Beltsville, Md., is working on a transgenic tomato variety that will contain up to six times the lycopene of traditional tomatoes and have a three-week shelf life instead of a 10-day one.

The transgenic variety is going through greenhouse testing, and Mattoo hopes to soon begin field tests to see whether the plants behave as expected, he says. After that, the tomatoes could go into production and hit the market — perhaps within three years.

St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. plans to use biotechnology to develop a soybean that will make saturated- and transfat-free soy oil. The company also wants to develop a variety enriched with omega-3 fatty acids that may help prevent heart disease and arthritis.

OUT IN FRONT

Hawaiian papaya is the poster child of biotechnology for the produce industry. Seventy percent of the papaya the state ships to the mainland is genetically modified to resist the ringspot virus that nearly wiped out Hawaii’s papaya industry a decade ago.

But before there was genetically modified Hawaiian papaya, there was — and still is — yellow squash with transgenic resistance to several viruses.

David Tricoli, manager of the plant transformation facility at the University of California, Davis, helped develop the transgenic yellow crookneck squash, which is resistant to the deadly yellow mosaic virus and watermelon mosaic virus.

Seminis Vegetable Seeds Inc., Oxnard, Calif., sells the seeds, which are more expensive than nontransgenic seeds. Gary Koppenjan, corporate communications manager, estimates that less than 1% of the squash seeds the company sells are the transgenic varieties.

If you sell biotech papaya or squash in your stores, you might not know it. There are no labeling requirements as long as the composition of an item is not changed, says Kent Bradford, professor of vegetable crops and director of seed biotechnology at UC-Davis. When products come out with added nutrition, they likely will have to be labeled as genetically modified, he says.

MARKETING CHALLENGES

The reason more transgenic fruits and vegetables aren’t coming out, Bradford believes, is because marketers will refuse them — so why develop them?

For example, several years ago transgenic potatoes were being developed for insect and virus resistance. But it ended when McDonald’s Corp., Oak Brook, Ill., said it wouldn’t buy the potatoes, Bradford says.

Distributors don’t want to have to segregate biotech and conventional items for their customers that say they don’t want genetically modified products, he says.

Genetically modified horticulture crops also are more difficult to develop. The many varieties increases research and development costs, he says. Also, the number of acres planted are too few to be profitable for large companies.

He believes that developing products with beneficial health attributes, like oils with increased omega-3 fatty acids, will help to start to change consumer attitudes.

“From a distributor’s point of view, we’ll do whatever the customer requires or requests us to do,” says Matthew Caito, marketing director for Caito Foods Service Inc., Indianapolis. “I haven’t seen too much of a negative consumer push away from biotech. But larger specialty or organic retailers would have a problem selling it.”

Consumers won’t be willing to buy genetically modified items until they’re educated on the subject. They have visions of corn crossed with cattle, says Rob McDougall, senior vice president and chief operating officer for the 22 D&W Food Center Inc. stores with headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“We’ve had groups contact our company wanting some sort of clarification that we do not carry biotech-enhanced products. When we get groups telling us those things, it tells me the community isn’t ready,” he says.

SEEKING ACCEPTANCE

Whatever controversy may surround biotechnology, there’s less surrounding irradiation, which is gaining acceptance in the produce industry as a measure to ensure food safety by killing fruit flies and other pests.

Irradiated produce has come from Hawaii since 2000 from Hawaii Pride LLC, Keaau. While the company no longer buys and sells produce, it still uses the same electron-beam technology as a contract irradiation treatment facility, says vice president Eric Weinert.

Acceptance of irradiation has become a nonissue, he says, since many major retailers are now comfortable carrying irradiated products.

He estimates that the facility treats about 40% of the papaya and all the sweet potatoes that the state ships to the mainland, as well as mangoes, star fruit and the lesser-known rambutan, lychee and longan tropicals.

However, irradiated tropical produce isn’t making huge inroads into the mainland.

Chesterfield, Mo.-based Dierbergs Markets Inc., which doesn’t carry irradiated produce, does carry some irradiated meat, but sales are low, says Steve Duello, director of produce operations for the 21 stores. He believes the reason for low sales is that it costs more and mentions that it has been irradiated on the label. He doesn’t know if it’s the price or fear that inhibits sales.