One of McDonald's major potato suppliers has developed a genetically modified species of potatoes that has recently received the stamp of approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
This means McDonald's and other fast food restaurants sourcing from J.R. Simplot Company may be serving up French fries, hash browns and other potato products made from Simplot's Innate potatoes, so named because the company reportedly used modified genes innate to the breed of potatoes itself, in the next few years.
"We are trying to use genes from the potato plant back in the potato plant," Simplot's Haven Baker, chief potato scientist for Innate, tells the New York Times. "We believe there's some more comfort in that."
The Boise, Idaho agribusiness, one of the biggest in the world, is touting its GMO potatoes for the benefits they bring to both farmers and consumers. Simplot engineered Innate to be less prone to bruising, a good financial incentive for producers who want to make the products last longer. Bruised potatoes get black marks through rough handling during harvest, transportation and storage, and become less desirable to sellers and buyers alike. In field trials conducted from 2009 to 2011, Simplot says Innate also had significantly less browning than other breeds after being cut and exposed to air for eight hours.
What could be a headline-grabber is the potential health benefits of this GMO potato. Innate is genetically modified to produce much less of a cancer-causing chemical that is produced when potatoes are fried. Simplot says fried Innate potatoes generate 50 to 75 percent less acrylamide, a chemical found by the National Cancer Institute to cause cancer in mice, than non-engineered potatoes. However, the NCI still does not know how much acrylamide found in human food is considered carcinogenic, which means it's not yet clear if the acrylamide-lowering characteristic of Innate is actually beneficial to human health.
Consumer groups advocating against GMOs are unlikely to accept Innate potatoes without a fight. The Center for Food Safety says the technique used by Simplot, called RNA interference, to modify the potato's DNA is still a little understood method. Critics also say that the method suppressed the plant's nitrogen, an important part of its chemical makeup, and diminishes its ability to combat pests.
"We think this is a really premature approval of a technology that is not being adequately regulated," says plant pathologist Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety.
Simplot says Innate will be planted in a few thousand acres and will initially target fresh food producers and markets, which means McDonald's won't be serving up GMO potatoes just yet.