Non-browning Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples could gain U.S. market access as early as fall of this year. As the fruit approaches its second U.S. public commenting period in June, the genetically modified Arctic apple continues to provoke debate on food safety.
Neal Carter, president of developer Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF), spoke with www.freshfruitportal.com on the GM debate and the future of scientifically engineered foods.
Market access and consumer concern
Arctic apples have already finished their first public commenting period in the U.S. and Canada, where the product was developed. Combined, the two periods brought in around 5,000 comments, most of which followed a standard template, according to Carter.
"There was nothing that was science based that made the USDA APHIS have to go back and revisit where things were at," he said.
"In both countries there were anti-GM groups that ran a campaign, 'click here to send your comment to APHIS' and so it didn’t take much. People clicked a button and sent it in."
Carter said he was unconcerned about anti-GM campaigning. According to the company president, the science speaks for itself and the regulatory process will confirm product safety.
"This apple is really quite amazing. It is going to sell itself. We have people wanting to plant. We have people wanting licensing. There is plenty of uptake. I think a bigger concern now is having enough trees."
He describes the apples as being just like any other in terms of flavor, texture and appearance. The key difference is that the development team has shut down the enzyme that would normally cause the apple to change color.
"It’s exactly like its parent; you can’t distinguish it from its parent. An Arctic Golden looks just like a Golden Delicious. An Arctic Granny looks just like a Granny. The only difference is how you slice them or bite into them or bruise them and cause that enzyme to be released," he said.
In part of product debates, the similarity between Arctic apples and their non-GM counterparts has led to the question, will concerned consumers be able to distinguish the product?
According to Carter, his company supports transparency but is wary to support mandatory labeling.
"I think they will come with a label. They will say 'Artic Golden' or 'Artic Granny' and have the Arctic brand name on it. With all of the media we have, there’s an understanding that the Arctic term refers to an apple that’s the product of DNA technology. Our website talks about genetic engineering. We don’t hide the fact that we’re genetically engineering these apples," he said.
Carter added that marketing efforts will promote product education and include store postings and samplings to introduce consumers to the brand.
Regarding mandatory GM labeling, Carter said such initiatives step over the line.
"We as a company don’t support mandatory labeling because we feel it basically undermines the regulatory process. We’ve gone through a three-year, very rigorous process and the result of that is that it’s deemed to be as safe as any other apple. Finally they expect you to put a label on it like a scare tactic against GMOs," he said.
Fresh cut marketing and beyond
Once the apples have hit the market, Carter has his eye on the fresh cut category as a top priority.
"The primary goal is to have an apple that can be used in fresh cut apple slices and not need and an anti-oxidant treatment. Anti-oxidants are expensive and also cause off flavoring and it’s very reactive. You need to be careful with how you use it in various treatments," he said.
"An Arctic apple is an apple that will just need an anti-fungal and a bacterial wash and then be put in the bag and in the cold room and it’s going to last 15 or more days. That’s going to change a lot of things for the fresh cut industry. It changes the cost to get into that business. It changes the quality of the product. It changes the price point of the product."
Beyond fresh cut, Carter envisions Arctic apples in the restaurant industry and the possibility of sliced apples replacing the standard bread basket.
"Very few apples are used in food service. Because of browning, the food service industry can’t use them," he said.
For retailers, Carter sees the possibility of cutting down on food waste by avoiding visually unappealing apples that may go to waste.
"Consumers buy with their eyes and an apple that has a small bruise on it is just going to sit there. They’re going to take the ones that don’t have bruising. Ultimately the retailer is going to have to discount them and in the end it costs them money," he said.
For now though, Carter explained that such possibilities are still off in the distance. The apples will first need to gain market approval before hitting the shelves. He expected the first small amounts of fruit for sale to come onto the U.S. market in 2015.
Photo: Okanagan Specialty Fruits