A POTATO genetically engineered to reduce the amounts of a potentially harmful ingredient in french fries and potato chips has been approved for commercial planting, the US Department of Agriculture says.
The potato's DNA has been altered so that less of a chemical, acrylamide, suspected of causing cancer, is produced when the potato is fried.
The new potato also resists bruising, a characteristic long sought by potato growers and processors for financial reasons.
The biotech tubers were developed by J.R. Simplot Co., a privately held company based in Boise, Idaho, which was the initial supplier of frozen french fries to McDonald's in the 1960s and is still a major supplier.
The company's founder, John Richard Simplot, who died in 2008, became a billionaire.
The potato is one of a new wave of genetically modified crops that aim to provide benefits to consumers, not just to farmers as the widely grown biotech crops such as herbicide-tolerant soybeans and corn do.
But the approval comes as some consumers are questioning the safety of genetically engineered crops and demanding that food made from them be labelled.
Ballot initiatives calling for labelling were rejected by voters in Oregon and Colorado this week, after food and seed companies poured millions of dollars into campaigns to defeat the measures.
The question now is whether the potatoes - which come in the Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Atlantic varieties - will be adopted by food companies and restaurant chains.
At least one group opposed to such crops has already pressed McDonald's to reject them.
Genetically modified potatoes failed once before. In the late 1990s, Monsanto began selling potatoes genetically engineered to resist the Colorado potato beetle. But the market collapsed after big potato users, fearing consumer resistance, told farmers not to grow them.
This time could be different, however, because the potato promises at least potential health benefits to consumers. Simplot hopes the way the potato was engineered will also help assuage consumer fears. The company calls its product the Innate potato because it does not contain genes from other species like bacteria, as do many biotech crops.
Rather, it contains fragments of potato DNA that act to silence four of the potatoes' own genes involved in the production of certain enzymes. Future crops - the company has already applied for approval of a potato resistant to late blight, the cause of the Irish potato famine - will also have genes from wild potatoes.
"We are trying to use genes from the potato plant back in the potato plant," said Haven Baker, who is in charge of the potato development at Simplot. "We believe there's some more comfort in that."
That is not likely to persuade groups opposed to such crops, who say altering levels of plant enzymes might have unexpected effects.
Doug Gurian-Sherman, a plant pathologist and senior scientist at the Centre for Food Safety, an advocacy group, said the technique used to silence the genes, called RNA interference, was still not well understood.
"We think this is a really premature approval of a technology that is not being adequately regulated," he said, adding that his group might try to get a court to reverse the approval of the potato.