The non-browning Arctic apple created in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley is set to begin a test run in select U.S. grocery stores next week and some believe it could mark a turning point in public acceptance of genetically modified foods.
The apple was created in Summerland by Okanagan Specialty Fruits. The fruit doesn't oxidize — or turn brown — because developers figured out how to silence the genes that produce the browning enzyme.
Starting on Feb. 1, Arctic apples will be sold at 10 different grocery stores in the U.S. Midwest -— marking the first time the apples will be widely available to consumers.
"The Arctic apple is about to become the symbol of the great national and possibly global debate over GMOs," said McKay Jenkins, professor at the University of Delaware and author of Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet.
"Really the issue is not so much about the apple itself, the question is whether the public will buy something that is a GMO. Will the public happily buy into a GMO product?"
The apples will be sliced and sold in grab-and-go packages, but their labeling won't specifically say they have been genetically modified. Instead, the package will be marked with a code that can be scanned, leading consumers to more information on the company's website.
"I don't think we're hiding behind the fact that we use that technique," said Neal Carter, founder and president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits.
"We don't want to demonize the product by putting a big GMO sticker on it."
GMO industry watching closely
The altered apples have already faced criticism from GMO opponents in Canada. Carter said it could be two or three years before the apples show up in Canadian grocery stores.
"We'll learn from our American experience and we'll bring that to Canada."
Jenkins said food producers around the world will also be watching the U.S. response from consumers.
"Will somebody go into the fruit and vegetable aisle of the supermarket and willingly buy something that they know is GMO? Really that is the question," said Jenkins.
"If the answer is yes, then the GMO industry globally would be thrilled because that would make GMOs somehow less threatening. If the answer is no, then the entire GMO industry would have one more hurdle to cross."
Jenkins said the public is already eating genetically altered food products, but added the vast majority of GMOs are mostly invisible to consumers in the form of processed food.
"The fact is that GMOs are in almost everything they eat, but they don't see them. The GMO apple is something that's visible."
The first GMO fruit ever released into the commercial market was the Flavr Savr tomato in 1994, but the product was eventually withdrawn amid declining sales.
A commercial launch of the Arctic apple is expected later this year.
"The apple will either make it or not, depending on whether consumers find it appealing."