I recently had the opportunity to speak with Neal Carter, President of Arctic Apples, about his apples, regulations, and consumer perceptions. Here are the highlights. (And big thanks to the TFD readers that suggested questions for Neal — I definitely tried to ask them all!)
TFD: So how did you originally get the idea for non-browning apples?
NC: That came so long ago now, it’s even hard to remember. I think the cool thing with the whole premise behind non-browning apples is it is as valid today or even more so than it was 15 years ago. We, my wife and I, are apple and cherry growers, so we are orchardists. Our background is growing fruit and something we’ve seen is continuous decline in per capita consumption of apples. So we would be motivated from the very get go here to stimulate and improve apple consumption. We’ve looked way back in the time and seen that apple consumption was dropping and that was affecting returns. It was making the industry more challenging to be viable. We didn’t have to look far to see these carrots that were now being cut and tumbled and put in the bag and what that did to the carrot industry. And generally what fresh cut has been able to do to the produce industry has been remarkable. You know the ready to eat salads and the carrots and baby carrots and now all other sorts of other vegetables as well have really helped increase consumption. The case of carrots, it has more than doubled consumption. We though the apple business isn’t benefiting from this because apples go brown and it’s such a deterrent from a company to use it in fresh cut. The whole antioxidant treatment is expensive and the antioxidant is off flavoring and there are just all sorts of issues around the antioxidant use for inhibiting browning in apple slices. You know even reaction to bags and it’s just amazing some of the challenges that the current fresh cut apple slices face. There is a product that is out there, but there are a lot of challenges to that. We thought, you know, if we could just get rid of the browning in apples we could open up a new market for apples. Essentially, the whole food service industry which uses very few apples today. It would be like doubling the potential market size for apples because we think today that 50% of the meals eaten are prepared outside the home by a food service company and that could be prepared foods in grocery stores as well as restaurants and fast food and everything else, institutional food service cafeterias, suppliers and stuff. Then you know doubling of the apple market will increase the overall consumption of apples. That has been our goal. We have seen fresh cut apple slices sales increased in terms of sales volumes. And we have seen all sorts of push back by food service against fresh cut apples because of the challenges they face with them. And so you know for us the Arctic apple and a nonbrowning apple is probably more relevant today than ever. Every food service company we talk to and say well look, we can provide you with an apple that does not go brown, it’s like “well let’s have it because we are tired of these other things” and you know that is the key driver for us.
TFD: I saw the video of you in the Arctic Apple orchard and it looks like the trees are identical to non-GMO apples. As far as the apples themselves, do they taste, feel, and look the same?
NC: Yes Arctic apples grow, taste, look, everything is exactly like their non-genetically modified parent. You can’t distinguish them at all until they are sliced or bitten into or bruised.
TFD: And do they have the same nutritional value?
NC: They have slightly higher nutritional value. Vitamin C levels are approximately 20% higher. The polyphenols, which is the flavor, aromas and antioxidants and such, in Arctic apples is slightly higher. It’s really because we are preserving the substrate, both vitamin C and polyphenols are the substrate for the browning reaction. Even though the whole apple sitting in storage isn’t getting bruised or bitten or sliced, you are getting over time cell walls being compromised and you are getting some of that PPO enzyme reaction with these things and consuming them. We continued to do data collection and more testing of the apples as we pick them from our field trial every year and had a new data set done by the food quality lab at the USDA in Beallsville, Maryland. It was interesting. It was even more convincing with respect to both polyphenols and vitamin C Arctic apples have, I’m not going to say much, much, a lot higher, but at least 20%. Now the thing with apples is that they don’t have much vitamin C, so it’s not like we’re putting them off the chart, but it’s still within the range of different apple cultivars.
TFD: One of the criticisms from anti-GMO activists is that we don’t have much of a regulatory process, but you are probably in a unique position because you have actually gone through this process of deregulating a biotech product. What’s the process really like?
NC: Oh my goodness, that is a pretty stringent science based and onerous undertaking, let me tell you. You know people who make comments about the regulatory agencies and the lack of regulatory oversight really don’t understand the process, because it is extremely rigorous and, in fact, we are now heading towards a four years of science review and due diligence around this product. And when it comes to the regulatory requirements, they require an equivalent of four or five Ph.D.s. Because one whole segment is dealing with molecular characterizations. So what you have done molecularly and that is a pretty big piece just to deal with right there, in terms of doing the molecular characterizations of your new cultivar. And in today’s world that probably could include full genome sequencing of it. That would mean you would have an entire map of your new plant, so you know exactly what’s going on. Then addition to that you have a full agronomic characterization, so everything that’s
happened in the field, how it grows, how it behaves, how it response to different pests and disease pressures, weediness, chance of out crossing from pollen gene flow, all of that. And then there’s the detailed genotype/phenotype characterizations, so that would be composition analysis, the wholly different nutrients and approximates and all of the nutrients and micronutrients compositions that are standard to apples. Let’s say the ones that are normally included in a FDA data summary, you have to at least include those. And the next would be any evidence of nontarget response, things like increased allergenicity, increased toxicity. What are the known allergens and toxins in apples and how you have impacted those. It’s extremely rigorous undertaking to put all that and have meaningful data with statistics and a complete analysis of each – typically it would written as a science experiment. I am not sure if you have any science background or not, but if you think back in your high school days, writing up a science experiment you have to have the protocols that were followed, and the procedures and the standards, all of the things that would make it the equivalent of a scientific paper, in terms of quality. That’s a, for a company as small as ours, it’s a huge undertaking.
TFD: I was really impressed that you guys only have 6-7 employees, especially when a lot of anti-GMO activists like to claim that biotech companies are “mega corporations” attempting to ruin the world’s food supply. How have you been able to handle such a large process with so few people?
NC: Right, well I guess those comments, we hear them too. In fact we have even received comments on our FaceBook page and on our e-mails that come in to that effect. That you know we’re just money hungry multi-national wanting to control the world’s apple supply type thing. Yea, ok, it’s like that’s not quite true. It isn’t the fact that the multi-nationals dominate the business environment is I think just a fact of life. We have multi-nationals dominate just about all aspects in the business environment in the world today but it does not mean that there aren’t niches where small companies can exist and medium sized companies. We’re kind of proud of what we have done and we think that comment isn’t necessarily true, but it certainly is from somebody looking at it from the outside, it does seem to be the case if you look at corn and soybean and granola and cotton.
TFD: How long does deregulation take?
NC: A couple of years, you know it took many years to do all the data in the field. Then probably close to two years to take the data and do the analysis and write up the submission document. And now we are three and a half plus years of review. So if you want to think of it, it’s at least six years, I would guess, of work. Probably more like ten when you include the amount of field time spent collecting and analyzing field data.
TFD: Is there independent research that goes into deregulation?
NC: Absolutely, we use third party labs and consultants and contractors all the way through the process. Again, as a small company, we rely on third party input probably more so. Because, they are the people that are specialized in things like molecular characterizations. A third party did the southern analysis, which is a molecular characterizations test. That is all they do and they are really, really good at it. A third party lab did all the nutritional composition testing and such. All the way through we used third party labs quite a bit, for two reasons; 1) they are more efficient at it and 2) we can’t be commented as we are biasing the results and then the results would not be valid.
TFD: What do you think will be the hardest part about getting the apples to market?
NC: Getting them deregulated so we can plant them in the ground. That’s the hardest. The other issue is around consumer pushback and industry pushback and things like that. They exist, but there are people who do want to try it and there are people who are excited about the product. Once we are deregulated, the trees will go into the ground and at that point the product will speak for itself. I think the product is exciting and there is going to be a lot of interest amongst people. Certainly our consumer data, we have done quite a lot of consumer survey work over the years and it has very consistently shown that there is a lot of interest in this product, an awful lot of interest. So we’re convinced that once we get deregulated the product will go into the ground and at that point it will pool out slowly. We know it’s not gonna be like an annual crop. A perennial crop is quite a different beast. People don’t plant millions of acres of it every year. They plant or replant 5% of the orchard or 3% of the orchard every year and so it won’t have the same kind of rapid adoption. But that’s ok, it will give us more time to work on the marketing strategy and the commercialization strategy and such.
TFD: How do you think that you get people past this fear that they have of biotechnology?
NC: Education, I think education. We have some evidence of that in our consumer survey work. I will give you an example. When we asked people if they are interested in a nonbrowning apple that’s all we asked. We got a response of their likeliness to buy a nonbrowning apple and we get an answer and let’s say its 60% of people who said they would like to buy a nonbrowning apple. And then we said that actually the nonbrowning apple has been developed and it has been developed through the use of genetic engineering, what is your likelihood of buying that? And the survey company said “oh we can’t do that because everybody is going to be scared away by the term of genetic engineering, it’s gonna be like falling off a cliff, nobody is going to want the product” Well that is not the case, it dropped about 5%, so it went from 60 to 55%. And then we asked the question, you know the nonbrowning apple exists, it was developed by genetic engineering where all that was done was to use the apple’s own genes to turn off the browning gene in the apple, so another phrase not even a whole sentence. People were like “oh well that’s not so bad, just use an apple gene to turn off an apple gene.” Now the likelihood to buy went up to 65%, they basically got the people we had lost back and gained more. And that’s just kind of an antidotal example, but we certainly have a lot of other examples that with a small amount of education people are able to understand what it is and appreciate that it’s not going to be anything catastrophic or something they should be terrified of. I am not saying that is the case for everybody, but for the vast majority of the population, they still have some confidence around the regulatory environment and they still have some confidence about the safety of the fruit supply and they’re not terrified by this. There is a vocal, a very vocal, minority who think it is the end of the earth and they are going to be more of a challenge no question about it.
I also asked Neal what we can do to support Arctic Apples and help bring them to the market. His answer Tell you friends!
Thanks again to Neal for taking the time to chat!