The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced on February 13 its decision to deregulate the first two non-browning apple varieties, Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny.The Arctic apple’s go-ahead is a notable achievement for Canadian firm Okanagan Specialty Fruits, as the small biotech is one of the few to have successfully moved a GM plant through the regulatory process on its own. Indeed, two weeks after the apple’s launch, Okanagan announced its acquisition by Germantown, Maryland-based Intrexon, a synthetic biology company. Okanagan’s stockholders will receive $10 million in upfront cash and $31 million in Intrexon common stock.
Apples’ color change, technically called “enzymatic browning,” occurs when oxygen reacts with an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase. Arctic apple scientists use a technique called gene silencing to turn off their apples’ polyphenol oxidase expression, which causes them to produce the chemical in amounts too small to cause browning.The non-browning trait “creates a wide array of benefits that offer value to the entire supply chain, especially consumers,” Okanagan Specialty Fruits president Neal Carter said in the company’s release.The trait, which allows apples to not brown when bitten, sliced or bruised, “can help reduce food waste and improve fresh-cut suitability,” the company said.
The GM apple may get caught up in the GMO labeling debate and used as an example, given its cachet as a family friendly, wholesome food, says Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima, Washington. “Apples are a symbolic product. It’s a fruit that a mother gives to a child going to school,” he says. “It’s going to be used in the media and by Congress in issues over the national labeling initiative.” Indeed, the Washington, DC–based Environmental Working Group put out a press release in February saying the approval of Arctic apples “underscores the need for a transparent and consistent national labeling standard.”
The question now is if the apples will have to be labelled as ‘genetically modified’ when they hit the market. Carter, understandably, would like to avoid this, but it will be up to the government to ultimately decide what’s required of the company. “Okanagan is engaged in a voluntary consultation with the FDA regarding the safety of Arctic apples for consumption,” Lizzie Plaugic reports for The Verge. “Although the FDA currently supports voluntary labeling of GMO foods, it’s possible the agency could require Okanagan to disclose its fruits’ genetically modified traits to consumers.”