Spurned across the continent by food-fastidious Europeans, the biotechnology industry has turned in its quest for converts to the ultimate ice breaker: genetically modified beer.
A consortium of the world’s largest biotech companies led by Monsanto Co. helped fund a Swedish brewer’s new light lager that’s produced with the usual hops and barley — and a touch of genetically engineered corn.
Brew master Kenth Persson hopes to profit from the notoriety his biotech brew is generating, while biotech companies hope it can gently sway consumers as European regulators slowly reopen the continent to genetically altered foods.
But those are tall orders to fill.
A series of food-related health scares in recent years, from mad cow disease to poisoned poultry, have stoked fears among many Europeans about so-called GM foods.
European, U.S. tastes far apart
Europeans insist that such food be clearly labeled, a vivid contrast with U.S. consumers, who don’t appear bothered that so much of their processed food includes genetically engineered soy and corn and isn’t labeled as such.
Indeed, polls show that most of the European Union’s 457 million residents are adamant about their food being kept free from any sort of modifications, genetic or otherwise.
And that might help explain why Kenth beer is hardly a barroom hit.
The brewer won’t say how many bottles have been sold since the beer was unveiled earlier this year in Denmark and Sweden. But he 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.
Although research on GM foods hasn’t yielded any nightmare scenarios about damage to life and limb, Nicholas Fjord of Malmoe in southern Sweden, is not entirely convinced, either.
Despite reassurances that genetically modified products are safe, an image keeps popping up in Fjord’s mind about a relative whose mother took Thalidomide in the 1960s because she was assured it was safe.
“So safe, indeed, that he has no elbow or knee joints and, despite living a good life, has been hindered since his birth,” Fjord recalled. Granted, that’s an extreme fear, he said, but one that seems to be strong in Europe.
A study conducted earlier this year by Finland’s National Consumer Research Center showed that of all the concerns about manufactured food that Finns have, genetically modified foods topped the list. Some 60 percent of the population expressed “strong concern.”
In April the European Union lifted a six-year moratorium on new biotech food, but just barely. The previous month, it approved the sale of a modified strain of sweet corn, grown mainly in the United States. But any food containing that corn must be labeled as genetically modified.
U.S. farmers argue that the labeling amounts to a de facto ban and the Bush administration says it will continue pushing its biotech trade complaint at the World Trade Organization.
And that’s where Kenth comes in.
The beer was created because Monsanto felt the biotech debate “never rose further than the inner circle of scientists, politicians and (nongovernment organizations),” said Mattias Zetterstrand, a Monsanto spokesman based in Stockholm. “Our wish was to contribute to this situation by making an abstract discussion more concrete.”
The corn in Kenth was approved for use in 1998, before the European moratorium started, and is grown in Germany. The Monsanto-created corn seed is spliced with a bacterium’s gene to resist the corn borer pest without the need for insecticides.
Zetterstrand wouldn’t say how much the biotech consortium contributed to the project, but said the companies haven’t purchased equity in the small Swedish brewer and won’t share in sales of the beer. The other companies involved in the project are Bayer CropScience, DuPont, Plant Science Sweden, Svaloef Weibull and Syngenta.
The brewer, Persson, said he realizes that selling a genetically modified beverage in the European Union can be a risky proposition — especially when its label touts GM ingredients unabashedly.
Beer trucks chased by activists
Greenpeace activists chased Kenth-ladened beer trucks in Sweden and Denmark, discouraging store and tavern owners from buying the brew, when it was first introduced, and Greenpeace continues to pressure big grocery chains to avoid stocking it.
Dan Belusa, a Greenpeace spokesman, said the protest encouraged ICA, a large Swedish grocery store chain, to remove Kenth from its shelves.
“Basically no GM foods are sold in Europe because consumers and retailers make a conscience choice to say ’no’ to them,” he said.
The brewer and Monsanto say Greenpeace’s efforts haven’t deterred their plans.
Kenth is now being sold through the Swedish state-owned liquor monopoly, Systembolaget, in southern Sweden and there have been no protests. But its availability is limited.
At a recent barbecue in Ingaroe, a small town about a 30-minute drive from Stockholm, a six-pack of the bottles was offered up for a taste test. The beer was poured in glasses and offered up.
All in all, everyone who quaffed said it tasted just fine, just like other beer.
They weren’t put off by its label, which proudly denotes its GM use.
“To me, it’s strictly the taste test,” said media consultant Debi Vaught-Thelin. “If the beer is made with GM ingredients and tastes OK to me, then yes, I will drink it happily.”