BOISE — J.R. Simplot Co. officials say their scientists have engineered a superior product. But they can't sell it without government permission.
Federal regulators must grant Simplot an exemption from rules governing genetically modified crops before the company can add the spuds to the 3 billion pounds it produces each year.
The Boise company petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for an exemption. The rules are designed to prevent the introduction of genetically modified plant pests. Simplot contends that its potatoes are not plant pests.
Simplot argues that its new Innate-brand potatoes, which mix genes of five potato varieties, are pretty much like the old.
"Innate potatoes provide no adverse impacts to human health, other (crops) or the environment, because they contain only potato DNA and are grown just like regular, cultivated potatoes," Simplot spokesman Doug Cole told the Idaho Statesman. "They have the same characteristics as their commercially grown counterparts."
Simplot says the potatoes reduce bruising and lower potential for cooked potatoes to carry acrylamide, a human neurotoxin and potential carcinogen that can appear in potatoes and other starchy foods cooked at high temperatures.
The modified potatoes also have fewer reducing sugars, which cause browning in cut and cooked potatoes.
"Innate potatoes will not turn brown after being cut for many days until they dry out and degrade naturally, while normal potatoes often begin to turn brown within 10 minutes," said Haven Baker, Simplot vice president of plant sciences, in an interview with Biology Fortified Inc., a website promoting genetically modified foods.
Baker said the potatoes could help farmers combat crop loss due to black spot bruise, which can affect up to 5 percent of potato crops. Black spot bruising occurs when potatoes are jostled during harvest. Bruised potatoes are picked out of potatoes heading to commercial markets.
Innate potatoes could reach the market in about a year if the USDA accepts Simplot's request, Cole told the Statesman.
Cole said he would not comment on potential markets while the petition is under review. The company supplies potatoes to McDonald's and other fast-food chains, and to grocery stores.
If they receive unregulated status, Innate potatoes would quickly be available to commercial farms and eventually in supermarkets, Baker said. Seeds probably wouldn't be available to home growers, he said.
Simplot has already conducted field tests of the potatoes under the agency's oversight. Cole said Simplot has provided test data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and asked it to determine that the potatoes are safe for humans.
The modified crop could mean higher profits for Simplot and farmers, but that wouldn't help consumers, said Jenny Easley of Middleton, co-founder of GMO Free Idaho.
"So far, the genetically modified organisms on the market are of no benefit to consumers," Easley said. "They benefit farmers, and really, that's all. There's not a nutritional benefit to us."
Easley said most genetically modified foods are untested for human consumption. She'd like to see all genetically altered foods labeled in grocery stores and restaurants. And really, she'd like them all banned.
"No matter what they think the value of their potato is, we have a regulatory system in place for a reason," Easley said.
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is accepting public comments until July 2.
J.R. "Jack" Simplot founded his potato and onion operation in Declo in 1929. The company has expanded into seed production, fertilizer manufacturing, frozen-food processing and distribution while becoming one of the largest private employers in Idaho.
Zach Kyle: 377-6464