Keeps the activists away — especially if the food industry seizes a golden opportunity to begin voluntary GMO labeling with a product that is practically impervious to attack.

A new development in the realm of genetic engineering has gift-wrapped an opportunity for the food industry to begin the process of neutralizing public opposition to GMO labeling.

Once and for all.

Last week, USDA approved the marketing of two varieties of apples that have been genetic engineered to forestall browning, making them some of the first natural, unprocessed GMO foods to be made available in the United States. Corn and soy, the other major food crops that have widely used GE varieties under cultivation, are almost exclusively processed as ingredients in other products.

Of course, the various groups that are dead set against the entire concept of biotechnology are wailing about the threat to consumers, as if these new varieties will be injected with poison that will have everyone from children to grandparents dropping dead after their first bite.

Personally, I believe the overwrought response is symptomatic of the fear these groups are experiencing. Consider that apples are about as wholesome, as non-controversial as any food available in the marketplace. Made into a pie, apples are arguably the quintessential symbol of America itself, given that baseball and Chevrolet are no longer the national icons they were a couple generations ago.

If genetically engineered apples are successfully marketed (which they should be), and no one gets sick (which they won’t) and consumers enjoy a tangible benefit (they won’t immediately turn brown after being sliced), there is a good chance that people will accept and eventually prefer these GMO apples to other varieties.

That’s why anti-GE activists are sounding the alarm.

“[These apples] won’t even be labeled,” an appeal from the Environmental Working Group stated. “You can’t tell GMO varieties from non-GMO in the produce aisle. This is only the beginning! Once this GMO fruit hits the stands, it will be more important than ever to have a clear labeling requirement. We deserve to know what we’re eating.”

EWG is demanding that these apples be labeled a GMO apples, noting that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) have introduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, which would require labeling of all foods with genetically engineered ingredients.

“If you want to know if your apple is genetically engineered, take action to support this pro-consumer bill today!” the group’s message concluded.

I have a better idea: Do what marketers are constantly urging their clients: Get ahead of the curve, and market these new apples with labeling that explains why they have been enhanced with biotechnology: To improve them for the benefit of the people who like to eat them.

Selling the consumer benefits

This is a golden opportunity for the food industry — heck, a Golden Delicious opportunity, since we’re talking apples. Previously, virtually all of the benefits of genetic engineering have not only been somewhat scary, such as engineering crops that can withstand the application of herbicides, they have delivered benefits only to growers and processors.

Understandably, consumers aren’t going to be too happy about a potentially scary new technology deployed for the purpose of putting more profits into the pockets of “Big Ag” — not that there’s anything wrong with that — while creating perceived threats of harm to both environmental and public health.

But when biotechnology is used, in this case, to create a bona fide consumer benefit, and it’s being used on a wholesome, natural food, the reaction is bound to be different, especially if it is explained properly. An anti-browning property is pretty benign, and, in fact, is a genuine benefit. Anyone with kids understands that they’ll eat apple slices all day long; not so much if you just stick a whole apple in front of them and expect it to disappear.

This is finally the chance for the food industry to begin the process of educating consumers about biotechnology, to convince them that the technology is indeed safe and that it can be deployed to enhance our food supply, not just fatten some corporation’s bottom line.

If that can be done successfully, the door is then open to begin labeling other foods made with GE ingredients, and within a relatively short time, the entire controversy over genetic engineering can be put to rest, and the harsh criticism of Big Ag, Big Food, etc., can finally be silenced.

And the only sound we would hear is the crunching of GMO apples.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.