Boise, Idaho-based J.R. Simplot has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to remove regulations on its genetically modified potato varieties because no non-potato genes were involved.

On May 3, the USDA published a Federal Register notice opening a 60-day comment period on J.R. Simplot’s petition for non-regulatory status.

After the period closes, the USDA will review the comments and issue an environmental assessment, which will undergo another 30-day comment period before the agency issues its final decision.

USDA seeks comments on GMO potato statusThe potato varieties bred by Simplot Plant Sciences have less of the possible carcinogen acrylamide, less bruising and reduced darkening when sliced, said Haven Baker, vice president of plant sciences.

At the same time, varieties developed using the Innate Technology, as the Boise, Idaho-company calls its patented approach, showed no significant difference in nationwide field trials or taste tests compared with non-genetically modified counterparts, he said

At the National Potato Council’s annual meeting in January 2012, in Orlando, delegates approved a biotetchnology policy that stated they support “technology and scientific advancements to improve its products, enhance food safety and reduce the environmental footprint of the industry.”

They also acknowledged that some governments and customers may be reluctant to accept the technology.

As a result, they recommended that all developers and marketers manage the varieties to avoid market disruptions.

The delegates also recommended that developers and marketers adopt identify preservation systems. But they didn’t go so far as to recommend the potatoes be labeled at the consumer level.

John Keeling, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based NPC, said the Food and Drug Administration continues to study the acrylamide issue. But based on current scientific knowledge, he said consumers shouldn’t change their potato consumption patterns.

“It’s under study, and it’s something that people want to figure out whether there are impacts on human health,” he said. “It’s a possible carcinogen in lab rats, but we don’t know what happens in the human gut and what impacts it has on humans.”

Innate Technology involves inserting genes from potatoes that quiet specific functions, such as bruising or asparagine production.

Asparagine is a naturally occurring amino acid found in potatoes. When mixed with sugars ― such as those also found naturally in potatoes ― and then subjected to high temperatures, asparagine forms acrylamide.

Those high temperatures may occur during frying, baking or roasting.

Acrylamide also is found in other foods, such as roasted coffee, cereals, breads and many baked goods.

During the past decade, the compound has come under scrutiny as a possible carcinogen.

Acrylamide production can be reduced to some extent by potato variety selection, cultural practices in the field, storage practices and cooking temperatures, Baker said.

By adding the Innate technology, he said acrylamide levels could be reduced an additional 50%-80%, which would bring them under the target.

The first three varieties scheduled for release are russet burbank, a baking potato; ranger russet, a french fry variety; and atlantic, a chipping variety.

J.R. Simplot hopes to have USDA approval by 2014, which would allow it to have a limited amount of Innate potatoes on the market by 2015, Baker said.

In years to come, the company plans to release snowden, yukon, pike and russet norkotah varieties with the reduced black spot/acrylamide traits.

Although the details are still in the works, Baker said J.R. Simplot would develop an identity preservation plan so Innate potatoes would not be commingled with conventional varieties during growing or packing.

The company also is looking at potential in the retail potato arena, he said.

“We’re open to a number of commercialization possibilities,” Baker said.

The same gene responsible for black spot bruising during harvest and storage also causes browning when potatoes are sliced during food preparation.

Only about 50%-60% of a potato crop grades as USDA #1, depending on the year and storage length. But with the Innate Technology, downgrades caused by bruising could be reduced by 10%-15%, Baker said.

The benefits also would carry through to retailers, with reduced shrinkage from having to toss bruised potatoes, he said.