Chris Koger, news editor
Chris Koger, news editor

It looks like soon I’ll have to update my standard response when someone comments on our website about genetically modified fruits and vegetables.

“There are likely no GMO products in your produce department, although some squash, corn and Hawaiian papayas have been altered without the traditional crossbreeding or selective breeding methods,” is what I usually say. Now I’ll have to add apples and potatoes.

Judging from comments at the U.S. Apple Association Crop Outlook and Marketing Conference I attended and the Idaho Grower-Shippers Association Conference that a colleague went to, GMO versions of apples and potatoes will be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

The Arctic apple, which has a non-browning trait, and Innate potato, which cuts down on bruising and acrylamides, are aimed at the processing market.

The Arctic apple’s biggest customer will be fresh-cut, which continues to grow dramatically. At McDonald’s, the fresh-cut sliced apples paved the way for other fresh fruit as a Happy Meal side to replace french fries (Cuties clementines passed market testing in Austin, Texas, and small bananas are now a possibility).

Even as national apple crop production estimates are at their third-highest, industry leaders aren’t too concerned. One reason cited by several is the growth in the sliced-apple category at foodservice and retail.

Although the apple association has come out against the approval of the Arctic apple — with concerns that anti-GMO blowback will affect sales of all apples — there wasn’t a sense of controversy or doom surrounding its eventual FDA approval. As the head of one state’s apple association said, “there’s nothing to do but let the market decide.”

On the face of it, there seems to be a strange double standard at work. Growers, on the average, embrace GMO technology as a tool to bring out desirable traits, like disease-fighting capabilities such as the sunspot virus-free Hawaiian papaya.

But in this case, the industry has found a way to keep apples from browning already, a citric/ascorbic acid wash, and it’s relatively cheap and easy to use. Why flirt with consumer whims on something that’s not a problem to begin with?

All too often I get a glimpse of a consumer mindset that equates GMO produce with poison. Literally.

Through The Packer’s online surveys of our website, and comments posted under stories on the site, it seems that GMO is a dirty word. Several years ago, we wrote about Del Monte’s plan to research the possibility of marketing a pink-tinted pineapple. We still get comments on that story. Every now and then it pops up and gets passed around and there’s a new slate of hate mail for Del Monte.

The company has no GMO pineapples, but our story cost it some customers, if the comments are to be believed.

I remember one response to our online survey in particular: a woman who purchased three Del Monte Gold pineapples immediately tossed them after reading about the research on the pink –tinted fruit. Not only was she concerned about her own health, but that of her husband, whose cancer would somehow be aggravated by consuming a GMO food.

Even after setting her straight on the facts, she still vowed to avoid all Del Monte foods, irreparably tainted by a decision to look into the possibility of introducing a GMO product.

Every time we write about a new club variety of apple, the eventual question is about its GMO origins. You get the sense anything new is suspect, and although conventional wisdom is that consumers want more options, there is an increasing amount that distrust any genetic tinkering, even by traditional methods.

With all this in mind, I thought the Arctic’s fate seemed easy to predict. Total failure. Instant rejection by shoppers. Public vilification.

That was before I attended “Communicating the benefits of Food Biotechnology: Understanding Consumer Attitudes,” a presentation at the apple association conference by David Schmidt, president and CEO of the International Food Information Council.

The nonpartisan group is well-respected in the scientific, media and business communities for giving consumers facts on biotechnology and other issues.

Schmidt shared survey results from earlier this year on a range of issues that affect people’s food choices, including biotechnology.

I found some of the results surprising.

The percent of people who have an “unfavorable” view of food biotechnology is about the same as those who have a “favorable” view, but more people dislike it than in 2012. However, there is a group that seems to be more accepting of food biotechnology: millennials.

According to the survey, 40% of millennials said they had a favorable impression of it, compared to about a quarter of the survey takers age 35 and older.

Overall, consumers say they would buy products with certain benefits provided by biotechnology, with anywhere from 58% to 72% saying they’re likely to buy those products engineered for better nutrition, less pesticide use, better taste and other benefits.

A summary of the survey is available on the council’s website, as well as “Food Biotechnology: A Communicator’s Guide to Improving Understanding,” a guide on how to talk to media about biotechnology in agriculture.

I’m guessing that guide’s going to become handy as more bio-engineered fruits and vegetables are approved for sale. Whether you are pro or con on the issue, it’s best to be armed with the best information.

ckoger@thepacker.com

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.