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Britain Wants To Protect The Country From U.S. Space Tomatoes

July 24, 1991

LONDON (AP) _ In a bureaucratic sequel to the sci-fi movie ″Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,″ the British government is putting the squeeze on some extraterrestrial American tomatoes.

It’s not that the tomato seeds spent six years in orbit, the government says. The problem is that they came from the United States and haven’t been declared disease-free in accordance with British regulations on farm imports.

″Had the seeds been British and the rocket gone up from Britain, it wouldn’t have mattered,″ said a Ministry of Agriculture spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The ministry fears that the seeds, which were in orbit for six years, may carry diseases such as potato tuber spindle virus, which could devastate British tomato and potato crops.

Reg Turnill, a 76-year-old space writer and retired television aerospace correspondent, has already enjoyed a succulent first crop of space tomatoes and is growing a second generation in his garden in Sandgate, about 65 miles southeast of London.

The Ministry of Agriculture wants Turnill and his wife, Margaret, to get rid of the plants.

″We enjoyed eating our tomatoes and sharing them with friends,″ he said this week. ″We are all still very healthy. Any after-effects can only have been beneficial, although much as we would like it, we do not yet feel any younger.″

The seeds were launched into orbit in 1984 on a satellite called the Long Duration Exposure Facility, and were returned to earth in January 1990 after extended exposure to cosmic radiation and severe heat and cold.

NASA distributed 120,000 tomato growing kits to U.S. schoolchildren, and also sent seeds to Turnill at his request.

When the Ministry of Agriculture became aware of Turnill’s own space tomato crop, it invoked European Community ″phyto-sanitary rules,″ which govern all seeds imported into the 12-nation economic bloc, Turnill said.

But Turnill said the U.S. Department of Agriculture couldn’t certify that the seeds complied with EC regulations ″since the seeds had been in space and from their point of view were an unknown quantity.″

On July 3, Turnill said, a Ministry of Agriculture expert inspected the dozen or so tomato plants in his garden.

Turnill said the expert, Andy Monro, told him he would probably be given a license to keep the plants on condition he not eat the tomatoes and eventually burn the plants, pots and compost in which they were grown.

The object of NASA’s experiment, Turnill noted, was to see whether the seeds would produce new varieties. These are most likely to occur in the second generation, he said.

He said he won’t decide until he gets the license whether to continue eating the tomatoes.

″We’re sure this will all end amicably,″ said the Ministry of Agriculture spokesman.

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