Apr 29, 2011
Non-browning apples cause controversy

Arctic Apples are seeking a place in the U.S. and Canadian marketplaces. The apples, a product of Canadian biotechnology company Okanagan Specialty Fruits (OSF), have been genetically modified to be non-browning – which should go over especially well in the fresh-cut and foodservice segments, said Julia Stewart, a spokesperson for OSF.

OSF is seeking approval in both countries for Arctic Apples to be grown commercially without restrictions – a request that has attracted some controversy.

According to Stewart, OSF scientists have determined which genes control the browning process and figured out how to turn those genes off. Using that process, any apple variety can be modified to be non-browning, but so far OSF is using Golden Delicious and Granny Smith. Other varieties will most likely be added to the Arctic Apples line in the future.

OSF was founded in 1996 by Neal Carter, an apple grower in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Carter’s goal is to use biotechnology to help tree fruit growers. Arctic Apples are the first product to come out of OSF’s pipeline, but more are coming, including apples with pest, scab and fire blight resistance, she said.

Arctic Apples have been in field trials in both countries for a number of years, but they can’t be grown commercially in the United States until USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) approves them. OSF submitted its petition to APHIS earlier this year. The agency will most likely seek public comment later this year (a similar process is going on in Canada), Stewart said.

OSF’s petition is scientifically sound and contains all the assurances APHIS is looking for, she said. The federal agency looks at the potential risks a new product might pose, including disease and environmental risks. It does not look at marketplace considerations, she said.

The U.S. Apple Association (USApple), however, does look at marketplace considerations, and is concerned about the potential impact of Arctic Apples.

USApple wrote a letter dated March 18 to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, asking him to deny OSF’s petition for unregulated access to the U.S. marketplace. The letter claimed Arctic Apples’ “non-browning” attribute is “insufficient to warrant introduction into and possible disruption of the consumer marketplace.”

USApple does not believe Arctic Apples represent a human health concern, but they do “offer questionable commercial benefit yet raise serious marketing questions for virtually all segments of our industry. Such concerns include consumer desire for choice, possible demand for labeling, potential consumer rejection of future genetically modified produce and possible market disruption here and in our export markets,” according to the letter.

USApple is not against genetic engineering research in general. The technology holds a lot of promise for the industry, but the request from OSF seems premature at this point, said Nancy Foster, president of USApple.

The marketplace is still evolving in regard to genetically engineered produce. There’s no certainty yet about the reception genetically modified apples might receive from consumers. In the current climate, the risks outweigh the benefits, Foster said.

Stewart did not comment specifically on USApple’s protest, but said OSF believes biotechnology has a strong future in the tree fruit industry and deserves the industry’s support.

As for potential consumer fears about genetic engineering, there’s research out there that suggests average consumers are generally in favor of genetically modified foods, as long as they’re the primary beneficiaries, Stewart said.

“We hope consumers are given the chance to make up their own minds.”

In fact, consumers might be more likely to accept Arctic Apples than other genetically modified foods. No foreign genes have been introduced, just certain genes turned off. The apples look, taste and grow like apples, with the benefit of being non-browning. Stewart called it “genetic modification at its most innocuous.”

If Arctic Apples are approved, OSF will come up with a licensing protocol to allow growers to purchase and grow the trees. The details are still being worked out, she said.

Arctic Apples are aimed at foodservice and fresh-cut operators, who would appreciate apple slices that don’t brown after slicing and, therefore, don’t require the antioxidant treatment normally needed to prevent browning. That treatment is expensive and tends to create an off flavor, Stewart said.

By Matt Milkovich

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