CASHMERE, Wash. – A Canadian biotechnology company has asked the U.S. to approve a genetically modified apple that won't brown soon after its sliced, saying the improvement could boost sales of apples for snacks, salads and other uses.
U.S. apple growers say it's too soon to know whether they'd be interested in the apple: They need to resolve questions about the apple's quality, the cost of planting and, most importantly, whether people would buy it.
"Genetically modified — that's a bad word in our industry," said Todd Fryhover, president of the apple commission in Washington state, which produces more than half the U.S. crop.
But Neal Carter, president of the company that developed the apples, said the technology would lower the cost of producing fresh slices, which have become a popular addition to children's lunch boxes, and make apples more popular in salads and other quick meals.
Carter's company, Okanagan Specialty Fruits of Summerland, British Columbia, licensed the non-browning technology from Australian researchers who pioneered it in potatoes. Essentially, the genes responsible for producing the enzyme that induces browning have been silenced in the apple variety being marketed as "Arctic."
"They look like apple trees and grow like apple trees and produce apples that look like all other apples and when you cut them, they don't turn brown," Carter said. "The benefit is something that can be identified just about by everybody."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has considered about 100 petitions for genetically engineered or modified crops. Those that have drawn the most attention have been engineered to withstand certain weed killers, but among those the agency has approved are tomatoes altered to ripen more slowly — the first genetically modified crop approved in the U.S. in 1992 — and plums that resist a specific virus. This is the first petition for apples.
The USDA's biotechnology regulations are designed to ensure that genetically modified crops are just as safe for agriculture and the environment as traditionally bred crop varieties, spokesman R. Andre Bell said in a statement. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service works with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, depending on the product, to ensure safety.
The approval process can take years, and it's not clear the apples will be accepted even if they pass government inspection.
Fryhover raised concerns about cross-pollination of conventional trees with genetically modified ones if they were planted in close proximity. He also questioned whether Arctic apples would generate enough in sales to outweigh the $10,000 to $20,000 per acre cost of replanting.
Carter said growers replant orchards all the time and the company aims to have big growers plant the apples in large blocks so cross pollination is minimized. Carter said he's confident the fruit won't harm the environment and he's submitted paperwork to the USDA and FDA to prove his point.
"Some people won't like it just because of what it is," he said. "In the end, it's a great product, no question about it, and people will see the process used to get it had very sound science."
Companies have invested heavily in crops genetically modified to improve flavor, increase yields or nutrition and make them drought resistant, said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit public interest group based in Washington, D.C. Often, though, the genes that define those traits are one small part of a complex system, he said.
"Scientists have been saying they're only turning one thing off, but that switch is connected to another switch and another switch," Kimbrell said. "You can't just do one thing to nature. It's nice to think so, but it just doesn't work that way."
He also said the non-browning technology appears to benefit apple growers and shippers more than consumers by allowing companies to sell apples that are older than they look.
"A botox apple is not what people are looking for," Kimbrell said. "I'm predicting failure."
Crunch Pak, based in Cashmere, Wash., is No. 1 in the sliced apple market, with customers including Costco, Kroger Co., Publix and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The company, founded in 2000, has tripled in size in the past four years, with nearly 500 employees and a new processing plant in Pennsylvania.
Its apples are rinsed in a combination of calcium and ascorbic acid — vitamin C — to maintain freshness. Taste and quality are always important, but spokesman Tony Freytag said the biggest issue is food safety.
"Quite honestly, I would rather have an apple turn brown than think it's still OK because it's still white," he said. "I'm not discounting the anti-browning. It's just not the panacea."
Everyone agreed that consumers will make the final call. They have largely accepted other genetically modified crops, but whether they will do the same with apples remains to be seen.
"There's something about an apple. It's the symbol of health and nutrition, and then to turn around and say it's been genetically modified — doesn't that go against what consumers say they're looking for?" Fryhover asked. "Right now, I wouldn't say the industry is poised to go either direction. We need to know more."
Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc.; http://www.okspecialtyfruits.com
Washington State Apple Commission: http://bestapples.com
Crunch Pak: http://www.crunchpak.com/
Center for Food Safety: http://centerforfoodsafety.org/