When apple flesh is exposed to air, it releases an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase (PPO). Just as iron oxidizes into rust when it comes in contact with water, white apple flesh turns brown when in contact with PPO. Okanagan suppresses the apple gene that codes for PPO. The process was discovered in 1995, derived from the genetics of a special grape that doesn't go brown. The result: an apple that has 90 percent less PPO activity when sliced compared with non-GMO varieties. Carter secured the worldwide licensing rights for the technology in 1997. Since then, the company has been working on perfecting the process and clearing the federal regulatory hurdles.
Meeting regulations, however, is not so simple.
Three agencies share the responsibility of regulating genetically modified foods and products—the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the USDA. Because the Arctic Apple is technically a plant, and more specifically, the technology it uses is derived from methods to make pesticide-resistant crops, it falls under the purview of the USDA.
The USDA is primarily concerned about the impact a GMO plant has on the ecosystem—whether the GMO plant will become a pest, affect insects, or disrupt ecosystems if taken across state lines. In its determination, the USDA found that the Arctic Apple is "unlikely to pose a plant pest risk and therefore are no longer subject to our regulations governing the introduction of certain [genetically engineered] organisms." The USDA verified Okanagan's claim of reduced browning, determined that the Arctic Apples were the nutritional equivalent of a similar non-GMO variety, and found that the apples "pose no more of a plant pest risk ... than conventional apple fruit." What the USDA is saying, essentially, is this: The Arctic Apple is no more dangerous to the environment than any other apple. It can be grown and sold.
But groups that oppose the introduction of more genetically modified fruit into the U.S. market aren't confident in the level of oversight. "The USDA glossed over the possibility of unintentional effects associated with the technology used to engineer these apples," Wenonah Hauter, the director of the Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group, wrote in a press release immediately after the USDA made its decision.
Jennifer Kuzma, the co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Program at North Carolina State University, explains that the current regulatory framework invites such criticism. "USDA's whole assessment process is really centered around whether it is a plant pest or not, and that's where the critics have problems," she says. "The USDA doesn't necessarily look for the indirect ecological effects or the human health effects, because their law is to look at the plant pest properties."