Bioengineered Beer Faces Tough Acceptance Hurdles

Bioengineered foods have been spurned across Europe, much to the dismay of the companies that have expended time and energy in their development. Is genetically modified beer the hoped-for ice breaker? A Swedish brewer, with help from a consortium of the world’s largest biotech companies led by Monsanto Co., has developed a new light lager made with the usual hops and barley, and an unusual adjunct of genetically engineered corn. Brewmaster Kenth Persson’s biotech brew is already notorious, but Persson and biotech companies hope it can gently sway consumers as European regulators take their time in reopening the continent to genetically altered foods. The outlook is still cloudy at best. Europe has had more than its share of food scares lately- mad cow, poisoned poultry, and other incidents have made consumers wary about any kind of food tampering, and that includes genetically-modified (GM) foods. Europeans want any food with GM content to be clearly and unambiguously labeled. By contrast, American consumers don’t seem to raise nearly as much of a fuss, even though much of their processed food includes genetically engineered soy and corn and has no labeling that says so. The European Union’s 457 million residents are far fussier, insisting that modifications, especially the genetic kind, are not what they want in their food. So it’s not surprising that Kenth beer isn’t much of a hit in European bars. The brewer hasn’t discussed sales figures since the beer made its debut in Sweden and Denmark, but says 4,000 bottles are on their way to stores and pubs in Germany, and he’s in talks with stores in the United Kingdom. He’ll have an uphill battle, if other EU countries are any indication. Finnish consumers listed GM foods as their number one concern about manufactured food, with 60 percent of the population expressed “strong concern” according to a recent National Consumer Research Center survey in Finland. The EU lifted its six-year moratorium on new biotech food last April, and has also approved the sale of a modified strain of sweet corn, but any food containing the corn must feature a prominent label declaring that it is genetically modified. The corn is primarily grown by Americans, and U.S. farmers see the labeling requirement as a de facto ban. The Bush administration says it will continue pushing its biotech trade complaint at the World Trade Organization.

Monsanto sees Kenth beer as a way of broadening a biotech debate that has so far been the domain of scientists, politicians, and non-governmental organizations. The corn used in the beer was approved for use in 1998, and is also grown in Germany. It’s genetically modified to resist corn borers without the need for pesticides. Monsanto and consortium partners Bayer CropScience, DuPont, Plant Science Sweden, Svaloef Weibull, and Syngenta have contributed an unspecified amount to the project for making the Kenth beer, but have no equity interest, and don’t intend to share in the product’s revenues.