If you visit the fresh produce aisles of an ICA supermarket in Sweden or a Marks & Spencer store in the UK in the near future, you might be surprised by a small, subtle change in appearance that in reality is revolutionising the way fruit is being sold across Europe. The laser labelling of fruit is a cost-effective, environmentally friendly means of drastically reducing the carbon footprint of both retailers and producers, while at the same time providing shoppers with a solution to an age-old problem: how to know where a product comes from and whether it is of good quality?
Laser labelling offers a safe, indelible means of adding a brand name or product origin to fruit skin without damaging the contents in any way whatsoever. Perhaps more importantly, the introduction of laser labelling means wasteful, costly paper labels and increasingly needless plastic packaging can be effectively eliminated, enabling retailers and producers to make substantial material savings to say nothing of the resulting environmental benefits.
I started Laser Food – the company behind the system being used across Europe – in late 2006 when I became aware, after many years working in the agro-food sector, of the difficulties that the non-labelling or mislabelling of fruit presented to supermarkets.
Although we live in the age of ever more packaged and pre-prepared snacking options, the bulk of fruits and vegetables are still sold loose in boxes, whether that be oranges, melons or apples. But while the box label might give one origin, there are often few guarantees that this is indeed the case.
In fact, there is often a risk that a consumer might not only be buying a product from a completely different origin to that advertised, but also one of a different – sometimes inferior – quality; a problem I had seen often in my home country of Spain.
I concluded that the only way to overcome this problem was by adding some form of indelible marking to the fruit surface without – most importantly – risking damaging the contents. With this in mind, towards the end of that same year I approached researchers at the University of Valencia with a view to finding a solution.
Over the next three years, using my own funds, I worked closely with the researchers studying the effectiveness of different possible systems. Labelling using a laser emerged as by far the most promising.
Fast forward a few years and the next major step in Laser Food’s development arrived with confirmation of European Union funding for the project in 2010 for what was by now known as the ‘Laser Mark’ machine.
But while we had already begun to promote the system, one major challenge remained – that of securing EU regulatory approval for the all-important contrasting liquid applied once the laser did its work; vital for making the brand stand out. If receiving funding in 2010 was a big step forward for Laser Food, being awarded regulatory approval in June 20131 represented a significant breakthrough.
Amendments to EU legislation meant that the materials used for fruit labelling – including iron oxides and hydroxides – could now be used to mark fruit surfaces using depigmentation, crucially without harming the product in any way.
As well as now being able to add brand names directly onto fruit, the legal change has enabled retailers to offer greater product traceability through QR matrix codes, while also being able to deliver considerable cost savings by eliminating wasteful paper labels. Laser Food built on this achievement by receiving certification for the application of the technology with organic fruits and vegetables.
A significant advance for Laser Food was the signing of a marketing agreement with JBT Corporation in November 2014. JBT, a leading multinational food sector solutions specialist with a presence in 25 countries, provides Laser Food access to new markets and an unprecedented global reach.
Under our agreement JBT now builds and markets Laser Food’s laser labelling system on a global level, which will make it available – and more financially accessible – to fruit producers from South America to the Far East.
Laser Food will also benefit from JBT’s global research and development, sourcing, manufacturing, in addition to their global sales and service network.
The latest success story for Laser Food began with Swedish grocery retailer ICA who approached us in 2016 after learning about the laser marking technology. We reached an agreement with ICA and one of their suppliers – Dutch organic fresh produce specialist Nature & More – to trial laser labelling on organic avocados and sweet potatoes going into their stores.
The trial proved so successful that Laser Food has been working in an uninterrupted form with ICA and Nature & More since, with the laser labelled products being supplied not just into Sweden, but also into supermarket outlets in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.
Retailers from other countries have also expressed an interest in the system, while ICA itself plans to soon expand the laser labelled range into other fruit and vegetable products.
Why is this happening?
Quite simply, consumer reaction to the marking technique has been overwhelmingly positive. Increasing awareness of environmental issues has also played a major part.
ICA itself estimates that it will save the equivalent of 200km of 30cm-wide plastic over a 12 month period that would previously have been used in packaging those same products.
Laser labelling effectively presents a real, proven alternative to plastic packaging and paper labelling that is gaining ever greater acceptance with environmentally conscious consumers.
Encouraged by ICA’s successful trial, Marks & Spencer in the UK became the next retailer to invest in the technology, this time starting with avocados in June this year that display a best-before date and origin. In this case, by replacing traditional paper stickers, the company estimates it will save 10 tonnes of paper and five tonnes of glue a year.
Until now, consumers have had no other alternative but to accept the traditional form of packaging fresh produce despite increasing awareness of the need to protect the environment.
Laser Food’s laser labelling system offers just this – a viable alternative that is beneficial to the environment, while – most importantly of all – doing nothing to damage the interior, shelf-life or taste of those same fruits and vegetables.