Little understood gene silencing technology will now be unlabeled in common consumer products
February 13, 2015 (Washington, DC)—Center for Food Safety today expressed deep concern over the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) decision to approve a first-of-its-kind genetically engineered (GE) apple that doesn't brown after bruising or slicing. The apple, developed by the company Okanagan Specialty Fruits, uses a relatively new form of genetic engineering called RNA interference or gene silencing, which has raised numerous concerns from consumer groups, environmentalists, and the apple industry. Like other GE products in the U.S., no mandatory labeling will be required. This approval allows commercial production of Granny Smith and Golden Delicious varieties of Okanagan’s non-browning “Arctic” apple, and the company has Fuji and Gala versions on the horizon.
“This product is completely unnecessary and poses numerous risks to apple growers, the food industry and consumers,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for Center for Food Safety. “For USDA to turn a blind eye to these risks for such an inessential technological ‘advance’ is foolish and potentially costly.”
The genetic engineering of such a commonly grown fruit could cause contamination of nearby organic or conventional apple orchards. The unlabeled GE apples, which are meant to appeal to fresh-cut apple slice processors and the food service industry, could also find their way into non-GE fruit slices, juice, baby foods or apple sauce, products predominantly consumed by children and babies who are at increased risk for any adverse health effects.
Pre-sliced apples are a frequently recalled food product. Once the whole fruit is sliced, it has an increased risk of exposure to pathogens. Since browning is a sign that apples are no longer fresh, “masking” this natural signal could lead people to consume contaminated apples, which is why some call it the “botox apple.”
“This decision is scientifically irresponsible and misguided,” said Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at Center for Food Safety. “The agency has failed to analyze whether suppressing fruit browning with these novel RNAs impacts the rest of the gene family in the tree, or whether there are off-target impacts on other genes. USDA should hold off on deregulating RNAi-engineered crops until they have gotten a grip on the latest research in this area.”
Unlike earlier cut-and-splice techniques focused on DNA, the new techniques, called RNA interference or RNAi, are based on the manipulation of RNA molecules in order to dial back the expression of, or silence, genes. The Arctic Apple has been engineered to reduce polyphenol oxidase (PPO) enzymes responsible for browning in apple flesh after bruising. However, these enzymes are also found throughout the tree, where impacts of the engineering were not determined. In addition, recent studies show that interference targeting one gene might unpredictably turn off, or down, unrelated genes.
In other plants, PPO genes are known to bolster pest and stress resistance. As a result, non-browning apple trees might be more vulnerable to disease and require more pesticides than conventional apples. Okanagan did not analyze PPO gene functions in apples other than browning in the fruit. Nor did it attempt to determine whether it has inadvertently silenced genes outside the PPO family. In addition, the Okanagan assessment also gave short shrift to potential effects on wild pollinators and honeybees, human nutrition, and weediness.
The U.S. Apple Association, Northwest Horticultural Council (which represents Washington apple growers, who grow over 60% of the apples in the U.S.), British Columbia Fruit Growers Association and other grower groups have already voiced their disapproval of these GE apples due to the negative impact they could have on farmers growing organic and non-GE apples, and the apple industry as a whole.