JUNE 2017 IN

Using a Laser to Label Produce

Labeling fruit and root vegetables has for many years been a problem with no perfect solution. European and national rules require nearly all produce sold in stores to be labeled somehow, so most items are either bagged or stickered. Now another option is catching on — using a laser to etch a label directly on the produce.

The laser darkens the pigments already present in a sweet potato to apply a code number directly to the vegetable. On avocados, peppers, squash, and coconuts, the laser lightens the pigments in the skin of the fruit to approximate the appearance of printing with white ink, but without the ink.

The idea of laser labeling first appeared in agricultural journals more than a decade ago. Laser labels got their first large-scale commercial test last year with sweet potatoes and avocados sold at Swedish supermarket ICA. The supermarket and a participating produce wholesaler say that the cost is similar to that of applying plastic or paper labels, but the laser process is more controllable. There are added benefits for consumers. Laser labeling takes away the effort of removing the stickers. That is a task that can take several seconds for each produce item, which may add up to minutes per week for a consumer.

Plastic stickers also carry the slight risk that someone might eat one of the stickers, and they can add a small amount of plastic trash to a compost heap. Paper stickers don’t have the problems of plastic, but are easily damaged by moisture and handling. All these limitations go away with laser labeling. Putting produce in bags is another way to attach the required label, but that approach comes with the added expenses of manufacturing and disposing of the bag.

So far ICA is using laser marking only on organic produce, noting that organic customers are more likely to appreciate the sustainability aspect of the laser labels.

U.K. supermarket Marks & Spencer decided to start with avocados, and has reported good success in early tests this spring. It is moving on to coconuts next. ICA is trying its luck with watermelons now that they are in season.

Not every experiment has been successful. Citrus rinds require a different kind of laser, one that draws wider lines and applies more heat. Laser-labeled citrus has been sold in the United States but has yet to be adopted by any retailer as a standard practice.

Given the problems inherent in all the alternatives, laser-labeled produce is something we are sure to see more of as grocers and suppliers work out the operational details.

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