Instead of local organic produce, imagine your organic fruits and vegetables traveling the world by slow boat and then still looking fresh for an extended time on retail shelves. What could make it possible for fruits and vegetables to double their lifespan at retail or make them transportable for longer times over longer distances even without refrigeration?
Apeel Sciences, based out of California and partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has developed an edible film coating barrier that stops produce from losing moisture, thereby slowing down visual spoilage. The tasteless, odorless and colorless edible coating, meant for both organic and conventional crops, is procured from already processed or leftover-after-harvest plant-derived materials such as peels, seeds, pulp and stems from fruits and vegetables. The company then extracts and processes lipids and glycerolipids to create the Apeel barriers.
PRODUCTS AND LAUNCH
Apeel Sciences currently offers two different products for application to crops at various points in the growing and harvesting cycle. The first product, Invisipeel, can be applied by growers to crops in the field. Second, growers can apply Edipeel after harvest. With Edipeel, the growers wait until crops are ripe before harvesting them and then place them on conveyor belts to spray or simply dip them into the Apeel solution, which solidifies around the fruit or vegetable, forming a barrier. Edipeel already has approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). The two products will be marketed as preserving agents (keeping the outward appearance of freshness of the fruit or vegetable), as pesticides (creating a physical barrier for pests) or even as fungicides (such as preventing the anthracnose fungus from shriveling up avocados).1-3
Apeel Sciences launched commercially in 2018 and is looking for market food growers to use its products. Having already conducted successful trials in Africa on cassava roots, which decay rapidly after harvest, the small company is looking to grow, beginning with shipped imports that will slowly transport Apeel-coated crops intended for sale at local conventional and organic markets. The Apeel label will soon appear on U.S. produce.
Notwithstanding the procurement of FDA approval, there is a possibility that Apeel’s products and ingredients will meet with controversy in some sectors. In fact, the products raise many questions about health, nutrient density, farm costs, ease of application and workflow.
For example, which chemicals does the company use to extract the lipids and glycerolipids from leftover plant-derived materials? From where does the company obtain the leftover, already-processed plant materials that it uses, and what is the quality of these plant materials? Which chemicals may have already been used on the plant materials themselves that would then be present in Apeel solutions intended for use on organic foods? What is the solidification process? Will the materials always come from the same sources (and from only organic materials), or will the source materials change over time?
Concerning the question of whether all the ingredients intended for organic crops are themselves organic, The New York Times reported in late 2016 that, “So far, the products are derived primarily from the remains of produce that has been certified organic, like grape skins left over from wine production and stems left behind after broccoli is harvested” [emphasis added]—but “primarily” does not mean one hundred percent organic. Organic labeling standards allow a box or container of food to state that it is “made with organic ingredients” if it contains just 70 percent organically produced ingredients.4
An additional question is whether consumers in a traditional organic market will even want the Apeel film coating on their produce. In other words, does Apeel have a place in the organic marketplace? Informed consumers have long understood that the best way of getting high-nutrient-density fruits and vegetables is to consume in-season produce that is locally grown and organic or biodynamic. This allows them to inspect their produce visually and use appearance as a proxy indicator for gauging freshness and nutrient density. Because Apeel’s barrier coating halts the visual decay of fruits and vegetables (an otherwise natural post-harvest occurrence), it will prevent consumers from knowing how long ago the produce was harvested and, therefore, will make it difficult to make inferences about nutrient density. It also may prove more difficult to ascertain where Apeel-coated produce comes from. The net result is that the customer may be faced with more foods of uncertain nutritional quality that have traveled long distances.
AND MORE QUESTIONS
Apeel Sciences’ products present a range of economic, international and regulatory concerns. Consider the Codex Alimentarius international food standards and the other international regulations that control world food markets. Food already travels around the world via Codex. For example, chickens are shipped to China for bleaching and then come back to the U.S. marketplace for sale.5 What will happen to apple growers in the U.S. when Apeel-coated apples start pouring in from China? Far-away economies may get a boost from Apeel, but local farmers risk going out of business while consumers are left with less nutritious and lower-quality foods.
Consumers may wish to ask themselves some hard questions about Apeel and similar technologies, including whether the products represent an attempt to move U.S. consumers away from local organic foods. Do Apeel products belong on organic and biodynamic foods? Do we want to take the risk of finding out? Do our foods need to be traveling on boats for months at a time before sitting on shelves even longer? And what about the nutritional value of our foods? Will it be affected by Apeel and does that matter to us? Is Apeel’s “second skin” even appealing?
Ultimately, the arrival of Apeel in the marketplace can serve to remind us of the many reasons to eat local, traditional, organic, biodynamic and chemical-free foods. It is important to keep asking questions about the foods we eat, and to let Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) chapter leaders, food club coordinators, farmers, grocery stores, food markets, friends and family know that we do not want more chemical applications on food. Fortunately, the WAPF Shopping Guide lists companies and farms that prioritize the highest-quality and most nutrient-dense foods. As they say, let’s vote with our dollars.
1. Garfield L. Spray this invisible, edible coating on produce and it will last five times longer. Business Insider, Jan. 16, 2017.
2. Dewey C. This start-up can make avocados last twice as long before going bad. Los Angeles Times, June 19, 2018.
3. Strom S. An (edible) solution to extend produce’s shelf life. The New York Times, Dec. 13, 2016.
4. “Organic labeling standards.” https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-labelingstandards.
5. McKenna M. USDA: chicken processed in China can be sold in the US without labels to say so. Wired, Sept. 4, 2013.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2018.