As comment period closes, USDA approval of biotech apples looks likely

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Dec. 16, 2013 - An apple bioengineered to resist browning will be one step closer to non-regulated status after 11:59 pm today - when the comment period closes for the Arctic apples' plant-pest risk and environmental assessments. And despite a flurry of alarming headlines and veritable wave of anti-GMO action alerts, industry experts say the apple should be approved by the Agriculture Department early next year.

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The apples were developed by the Canadian biotechnology company Okanagan Specialty Fruits and have undergone extensive field-testing, according to president and founder Neal Carter.

“Ten years of real-world field trial experience has shown that Arctic trees and fruit are just like other apple varieties consumers have come to know and love, until the fruit is bruised, bitten or cut,” he said in a statement.

Last month, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) recommended two varieties of the apple (Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny) be granted non-regulation status.

APHIS concluded in an environmental assessment that the non-browning apples “have the potential to improve fruit processing capabilities for maintain the quality and shelf life of apples.”

But some detractors say they are unconvinced by the agency's conclusions.  The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit organization that seeks to “defend the rights and broaden the freedoms of family farms,” says in promotional materials that “genetically engineered apples pose a potential threat to human health.”

The organization's widely disseminated sample comments have been submitted to USDA through the regulations.gov website over 150 times.

The U.S. Apple Association also initially said it was against the approval of the non-browning apple - though not because the group believes the product is unsafe, stressed Wendy Brannen, director of consumer health and public affairs.

Instead, the group said it doubted “the consumer demand was there for those (non-browning) attributes.”

Now that approval seems likely, however, Brannen says the Arctic apple's success “will become a matter of consumer choice.”

The association says it is looking forward to supporting a GM apple that is engineered to provide, for example, better nutrition.

Okanagan Specialty Fruits says it anticipates U.S. approval in early 2014, with approval in Canada soon to follow. Small quantities of the Arctic apple should become available in autumn of 2015.
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