Produce Stickers and Tattoos

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November 6, 2017

Produce stickers are edible? Not the plastic or paper types! That adhesive on either seems pretty questionable too. Especially when it becomes part of the fruit’s skin and both come off as a single layer. How any of this is acceptable for organic produce seems an oxymoron. However, a solution to those billions of little plastic stickers threatening the environment seems to have arrived. One that will serve as huge cost saving for food retailers. Just the UK’s Marks and Spencer told The Daily Mail this summer, that this new technology will reduce their material use by 15 tonnes of paper and glue annually.

Instead of glued-on produce stickers, some grocery store chains in Europe are switching to tattoos. No, they’re not injecting dots of edible ink into the food. Word is it’s a totally superficial application with nothing but light applied. So, how then is such a label possible?

laser etched produceLaser technology now allows labeling directly onto the food skins. But some research reveals various methods in use for creating these tattooed labels. The technology isn’t really new. And apparently, seen on fruits and veggies with edible skins, unlike produce stickers they are edible.

An article in last week’s Fresh Plaza describes it being done with CO2 laser machines. This actually etches the logo and information into the fruit or vegetable skin. CBS News reports that the FDA investigated US tattooed produce stickers back in 2011. They did allow citrus labeling with the technique in 2012, and updates on their ruling followed in 2014 and 2017. However, the technique is under the irradiation and radiation categories in the US Code of Regulations. They also still limit this to citrus fruit application.

According to the Miami Herald, Australia and New Zealand have used CO2 laser labeling since 2009, and the EU approved it in 2013. And while it does away with lots of plastic packaging and produce stickers, not all types of foods can tolerate this form of labeling. Only those with self-healing skin are viable candidates. So, it’s not surprising that the FDA stipulates that citrus is waxed both prior to and after laser label application.

It seems they now have two methods of replacing produce stickers with tattoos. Just a few weeks ago in September, Euronews reported them as formed by removing fruit and vegetable skin pigments with a laser machine. This recent piece covers the Eosta Natural Branding program in The Netherlands. Yet, in a video piece, Euronews did in February 2017 about Sweden’s ICA supermarkets, the laser marking actually creates flames on sweet potato skins. (Beginning at 0:23.)

Meanwhile, the earlier mentioned Daily Mail article says this about the tattoos that replace produce stickers:

“The labelling works by shining intense light on to the avocado’s skin, which discolours only the top layer, meaning it does not damage the fruit.”

But a couple of paragraphs later, states that Sweden first used the technology earlier in the year. Yet, no light beams appear in the Euronews videotaping of the machine in action. Perhaps its a misunderstanding or lack of information. Because more than one company makes machines used for laser labeling fruits and vegetables.

The LaserFood system from JBT Technologies in Spain does mark the skin with super bright light. The marking appears gradually as the produce reacts to the light penetration. But you also see in the video below, they apply a contrasting liquid:

So, what is this contrasting liquid? According to Core77, it contains iron oxides and hydroxides. Some people have concerns about the safety of these on food, but the FDA approved iron oxides as natural food coloring in 2015. As for hydroxides, calcium hydroxide brings no worry, because we know it as pickling lime. Food-grade sodium hydroxide is also commonly used in making or processing foods; responsible for that glaze on hard pretzels.

tinted laser labeling

It’s certainly more environmentally friendly than glued on produce stickers. It will significantly reduce the amount of plastic used today in grocery stores. Still, one wonders why the FDA places it under irradiation in the Federal Code, and only allows it for citrus. Yet, on the other side of the world, the techniques replace produce stickers in growing numbers.

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Images courtesy of Retail Gazette, Fresh Plaza, and Core77 (respectively).

Tammy Clayton

Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine
Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.
Tammy Clayton

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