U.S.: Arctic Apple set for commercial launch following successful trials
Okanagan Specialty Fruits' Arctic Golden apples, whose PPO genes have been silenced through genetic modification, gained U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in 2015.
While volumes are still limited, company founder Neal Carter said there would be "exponential" growth in the coming years as more budwood became available and more nurseries came on board.
"We need fruit, because the market’s ready to take it," he told Fresh Fruit Portal.
Details of the recent market trials are largely being kept under wraps for now to create more buzz prior to the October roll-out, but Carter said he couldn't have asked for more positive consumer feedback.
"To be honest, we couldn't have dreamt up this good a result. To me, in a nutshell, that's how it went," he said.
An important aspect of the trials - which involved 10-ounce Arctic slices in a grab-and-go bags - had been confirming the marketing strategy, packaging and production positioning.
"The bag's bright, colorful and eye-catching, and has Arctic Apple slices with absolutely no treatment whatsoever. What we found is that most consumers were interested in purchasing Arctic Apples, and in a taste test comparison it was the preferred product," he said.
"Based on this research we really felt that we’re ready."
There may be several months to go until the launch, but as Carter pointed out there was plenty to keep to team busy, including logistical aspects and food safety certifications to work through.
Given the volume constraints, the initial commercial roll-out will be focused on regional retails around the U.S. mid-West.
There will likely be two or three retailers and at least 40 or 50 stores involved, but Carter said this would largely depend on available volumes.
"The volume is small, so once we harvest the crop and retailers look at movement they may expand into more of their stores," he said.
"What we are trying to do is be in the store from October through December 31 - that's the goal."
Asked whether he envisaged any issues around consumer perceptions of GM produce, Carter highlighted how in his experience the topic was not nearly as big a difficulty as might be thought.
"For more than 10 years we’ve been doing consumer research, and the research we’ve taken - whether its focus groups, quantitative surveys, in-store or in-mall surveys - it’s incredible consistent," he said.
"It doesn’t matter whether it’s Chicago or San Francisco, Toronto or North Carolina, it’s very similar, which is somewhat surprising to us because the flip side of that is the number of interview requests and media engagement in trying to stir up controversy around the anti-GM versus GM crowd. And all this sort of stuff, that has fallen way off.
"We just don’t see people asking about that whole GM thing nearly as much as we used to. And rightly so, because when we look at the consumer data, it’s 10%, 15%, maybe 20% maximum at the moment that really have any concern at all."
He believed for the most part people were driven by convenience and healthy eating, which boded well for the Arctic Apple.
"There's been a lot of support for convenience-driven healthy eating by dietitians. Everybody knows that our society needs to eat healthier and they see this as a product that addresses that, so they get behind it," he said.
"So we don’t see a big consumer anti-GM issue happening here. In fact, in our discussions with the store we talk about the normal things like logistics and freight."
Volumes set to soar
Looking at production - which is focused on the U.S. Northwest - Carter said the company was working hard to reach the critical mass, with volumes expected to ramp up significantly on a yearly basis.
He explained a combination of planting more trees and the tress that are in the ground producing more fruit would lead to "exponential growth."
"As a company as a whole, whether it’s the growth of our staff or the growth of our production orchards, we’re pushing very hard," he said, adding 200 acres had just been planted this spring and another 400 acres would crop up next year.
"Right now the idea is that this fall crop is going to be in the 200,000-300,000 pound range, and then it will go up four or five-fold a year from there.
"So for the next three years or so we'll be volume constraint, but after that we'll have the volume that we want to be able to supply international-level retailers and food service."
Since the beginning of the year the company has added seven members of staff, bringing the total to 17.
As part of the boost the team's sales capacity was expanded and an operations manager was brought on board as sites are sought to build new infrastructure like storage facilities.
"In the lab we’ve also added people as we advance pipeline ideas. It's really very cool to see that we’re doing all of it - we're focusing on building more business through new products and new traits as well as putting a team in place to execute on the commercialization and other plans we have," he said.
"Moving the commercial business forward is a priority and advancing the science is a priority - bringing the Arctic Apple to new varieties.
"Last fall the Arctic Fuji was approved by the USDA we’re now working that through the FDA and the Canadian regulatory process, so we anticipate full approval before the end of this year, and Gala is coming along. We’re hopful that after Gala there will be some other varieties as we expand the Arctic Apple portfolio."