So long to sticky labels

Microbiologist Jan Narciso at the ARS Citrus and Subtropical Products Laboratory in Winter Haven, Fla., and University of Florida Researcher Ed Etxeberria investigated the effects of the natural light labeling system on produce quality.
Photo by Jan Narciso.

There are a range of things upon which growers, packers and consumers can agree. One of those is a mutual distain for modern produce labels. The stickers, intended to identify products and their source and to allow traceability, are the source of headaches across the board. Fortunately, the tags will soon be a thing of the past.

Problems with produce labeling

In recent years, produce labeling, down to the individual unit, has become a necessity. The typical supermarket stocks scores of different fruits, nuts and vegetables, creating a nightmare for cashiers who primarily rely on universal product code (UPC) scanning. Labels with product names and price lookup (PLU) numbers simplify the process. Those PLUs also indicate information such as the production method (break the codes online at www.plucodes.com).

More importantly, food safety and traceability have become top concerns as the industry endures multiple contamination incidents and greater volumes of foreign-grown produce enter the country. Jan Narciso, an Agricultural Research Service microbiologist, says that domestic and foreign suppliers have different regulatory standards, mandating country of origin identification.

No matter how essential they are, today’s stickers have a variety of shortcomings, she says.

“They come off easily, which defeats [the purpose of being] able to track it back to the exact spot in the field where it was grown,” Narciso adds. “If [the sticker] is gone, the security and traceability is gone.” On the other hand, some consumers find them difficult to remove and easy to accidentally ingest.

In addition, the labels are logistical horror stories for packers. The stickers adhere to each other and gum up packing machines, adding to labor costs. And changing from packing one product to another requires stopping operation to switch labels.

Developing a better way

Today, Greg Drouillard is the director of research technology for laser development for Sunkist Growers, Inc., in Sherman Oaks, Calif., but in 1994 he was a senior scientist in physics and robotics at the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville, where the labeling concerns of citrus packinghouse owners came to his attention. They were eager to find alternatives to the costly, labor-intensive process.

At UF, and later on his own, Drouillard worked on the problem for 10 years before developing a viable solution: the Natural Light Labeling System. The method laser-labels identifying and traceability information on fruit and vegetables with a low-energy carbon dioxide laser beam that etches the surface. Because the beam marks the produce by removing pigment in the upper layer of skin only, it doesn’t change the fruit or vegetable in any way.

Advantages of lasers

The so-called tattoo identification system appears to be close to perfection. All the problems of stickers, including impermanence, expense and labor requirements, are eliminated. The tattoo cannot be altered or removed without visibly damaging the product. The system is far less costly and requires little labor. One early user realized a savings of $125,000 to $175,000 in the first year. It is cleaner than other labeling systems, using only light to make its mark; thus, the new and improved label is completely edible. In addition, it’s a green system that uses little electricity and has no consumable parts.

Greg Drouillard, a former University of Florida scientist now working with Sunkist Growers, spent more than a decade bringing the Natural Light Labeling System to market.

“It can run continuously for 10 years,” Drouillard says. “There are no costs [associated with operation] after paying for the machine.”

Drouillard’s invention can be used without altering existing packing lines. Unlike paper labels, the content of the laser etching can be easily changed. An operator simply types in the information and walks away. In fact, each item can be tattooed with different information. If sizing information is to be included, for example, the machine has an electronic sensor that transmits the data for each product and the correct, individualized label is lasered.

“You could add the buyer’s name without stopping production,” Drouillard says. “Once [the machine is programmed and] started, no human is needed.”

It does all that in a mere nine nanoseconds, so it’s no surprise that buyers were lining up when Drouillard unveiled the Natural Light Labeling System in 2005. In fact, it’s been in use in several foreign countries for four years, but it was quickly pulled in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put the system on the shelf until its approval requirements could be met.

Testing and approval

Drouillard says that fulfilling the FDA requirements has been the most challenging aspect of the entire project. For assistance with testing the laser machine for safety and efficacy, he turned to former colleagues in Florida. Narciso and UF’s Ed Etxeberria gave the system a workout to ensure it is a reliable labeling technique.

To evaluate its effect on water loss, decay and shelf life, the pair ran lab tests to measure water loss, peel appearance and potential decay in laser-labeled grapefruit. The fruit was stored at 10 degrees Celsius and at two relative humidities for five weeks. The test fruit showed no increase in decay as compared to non-etched fruit. Even when the surface was coated with Penicillium digitatum (citrus green mold) before and after laser-etching, the result was the same. Similarly, the process did not negatively affect water retention and shelf life.

The “laser” label wipes out the problems presented by sticky labels. It is non-removable, can’t be altered and doesn’t damage produce in any way.
Photo courtesy of Greg Drouillard.

“Lasering produce is like having your nose cauterized,” Narciso adds. “It burns the tissue a tiny bit and actually seals fruit. Actually, this process is cleaner and better for fruit than adhesive labels.”

Although the tattooed area is resistant to decay, pathogen invasion and water loss, wax coverage is recommended to prevent any possibility of moisture escaping.

Narciso’s and Etxeberria’s research indicated that the process could be used on any produce except leafy greens.

Bringing the system to market

After 16 years of development and testing, Drouillard expects FDA approval at any time. He will display his invention at the United Fresh Produce Conference in Las Vegas in April. An early adopter, involved in the testing process, is Sunkist, which has purchased a license for using the Natural Light Labeling System with citrus products. Drouillard says the system’s virtually infallible traceability feature was the primary deciding factor for Sunkist.

Because Drouillard will offer the machine for purchase, lease or lease-purchase, general pricing is not available. However, the long-term cost savings over paper labels seems certain to make the product a success. Although the development and approval process has been lengthy, the timing for official U.S. release may actually be perfect.

“The FDA will soon announce traceability requirements and this is the only technique that can meet those guidelines,” Drouillard says. Although a carnauba wax laser-labeling method is available, its system does not produce permanent, non-removable and non-alterable identification.

Drouillard’s process is safe and effective for softer produce such as tomatoes and peaches.
Photo courtesy of Greg Drouillard.

Consumers should see tattooed produce in their supermarkets by early summer. In addition, the fruit industry envisions using the technology with products sold to the food service sector. Paper labels can’t be used on such produce, due to the risk of contamination resulting from food preparation. Laser-etched produce wouldn’t present that obstacle and could lead to much improved food safety in food service environments.

Upon final FDA approval, Drouillard will launch a Web site for Laser Application Technologies, the company responsible for the Natural Light Labeling System. He may be contacted via telephone (678-575-2314 or 909-782-6282) or e-mail (gdrouillard@hotmail.com).

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.