USDA Approves Engineered Arctic Apples — Should Consumers Be Afraid?

After three years of study, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved genetically engineered Arctic apples for deregulation, saying it doesn’t pose a significant risk to other plants or pests. The new apples are set to be the first genetically modified whole food to hit shelves in the U.S. market. Still, the approval is likely to re-energize the debate about GMO safety and labeling in the coming months.

The company that developed Arctic apples, Okanagan, was thrilled at the decision, as explained by President and founder Neal Carter.

“The commercial approval of Arctic apples, our company’s flagship product, is the biggest milestone yet for us, and we can’t wait until they’re available for consumers.”

Arctic apples don’t brown after they are cut or bruised. That means McDonalds and a plethora of other restaurants and grocery stores can save money by not having to spray their apple slices with citric acid — the current method of preventing browning — and consumers can enjoy better-looking, longer-lasting fruit. Nevertheless, the fruit has been controversial because the crop was developed using genetic engineering.

Okanagan engineered the apples by inhibiting the enzyme that causes browning. Although Americans have been eating genetically engineered products for the past 30 years, the Arctic apple is unusual.

According to Politico, the USDA office in charge of the Arctic apples approval wouldn’t comment on why the process took three years — about three times longer than most approvals — but the unique circumstances may have had something to do with it.

It’s a novel trait alteration in a crop that’s new to GE from a relatively unheard of company. Almost all approval for GE foods come from six crops: corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, sugar beets and alfalfa. Likewise, applications almost always come from the same six companies: Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, Bayer Crop Sciences, and BASF.

Arctic apples are the product of a tiny start-up called Okanagan, which has six employees and survives mostly on venture capital. It lacks the lobbying power and connections of the big players, making the development that much more difficult.

Furthermore, most modifications are made to make crops more pest and herbicide resistant — saving farmers money — but Okanagan is making a trait for the general consumer, a much harder sell.

A Pew Research survey revealed only 37 percent of Americans believe that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are safe to eat. With more education, people tend to find the idea more appealing — the same survey found 88 percent of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science felt GMOs were safe to eat.

The fears have prompted action on GE –not GMO — labeling requirements. A bill introduced by Senate Democrats called the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act would require food manufacturers to label GE food products.

The bill will likely not make it out of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, despite the idea having 90 percent approval from the American public. If it does pass, the labeling requirement may still have difficulties getting the message through to consumers since many use the terms GMO and GE interchangeably.

GMO means any organism that’s been genetically modified, even through traditional plant and animal breeding. That means virtually all foods found at the grocery store are GMOs according to FDA definitions.

GE means what most people think GMO means, “the name for certain methods that scientists use to introduce new traits or characteristics to an organism.” The law emphasizes the difference, assuring that GE foods will not be labeled with the popularized GMO.

Whether or not Arctic apples get a GE label, little Okanagan will have to convince more than just the USDA that its product is safe. The product will still keeps its name “Arctic apples” so consumers can recognize the new breed. The company is still waiting for a voluntary review from the FDA, but they hope Arctic apples will be on the market by 2016.

[Image Credit: Getty]