US: Still a ways off, GMO apples concern industry

Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved a Canadian genetically-modified non-browning apple for sale in the United States, it will take years before American consumers see GMO fruit in their produce aisles. While still a ways off, there's still concern in the apple industry that GMO fruit is not what consumers want, and that its introduction could affect buying habits.

“The consumer is the one who will make a decision on this,” said Todd Fryhover, President of the Washington Apple Commission. “We feel there's an adequate supply of all apples, and consumers can have all they want right now. Non-browning is not a factor in consumer decisions.”

“I see no interest in GMO apples,” said Randy Steensma of Honey Bear Tree Fruit Company, echoing Fryhover's thoughts. “I've never had a call from someone asking for GMO apples, and I think consumers just don't want them at this time.”

The varieties approved for sale by the USDA come from Okanagan Specialty Fruits in Canada. They are Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples that have been modified to retain a white flesh once the apple has been cut. Though only two varieties have been approved, and it will take years before they're commercially available, there's worry that consumers will think GMO apples will be more prevalent than they actually will be.

“With one company introducing a GMO apple, that could confuse consumers, who might get the impression that all apples are now genetically-modified,” said Steensma. “They'll catch a part of the story, and they might not realize it's only a couple of apples and not all varieties. The same thing happened when there was a story about one shipper in California with apples that were contaminated with listeria. Some buyers got only part of the story, and it hurt demand.”

What many see as the problem with introducing GMO apples is that those apples don't have to be labeled differently from conventional apples. For consumers who want to avoid genetically-modified fruit, that lack of distinction could turn them off from conventional apples.

“Organic guidelines prohibit the handling of genetically-modified fruit, so buying organic is an avenue to avoid GMO fruit,” said Addie Pobst of Viva Tierra Organic. “Because there are no requirements to label GMO fruit as such, it's possible that more people will be turned on to organic fruit if they're confused and want to be sure they're not buying genetically modified products.” Now approved, the important thing, for the apple industry, is to make sure consumers are aware of the distinction between the different kinds of fruit that will be available.

“There are no GMO apples available in the United States today, and it will take years before there's any commercial production of those apples,” said Fryhover. “But the important factor is the education component; consumers will need to know that the vast majority of apples are not GMO, so some type of differentiation will need to take place where we can separate ourselves from genetically-modified fruit.”

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