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Citrus fruit laser etching technology offers alternative to labels – developer

By Joe Whitworth , 16-Jul-2012

An example of the laser etching technology
An example of the laser etching technology

Laser etching on citrus fruit could be seen within months on the US market as an alternative to current labelling methods, according to its developer.

The infrared laser light etching system creates a label onto the peel of the citrus fruit (pictured) which can’t be removed – making it easier to trace back to the producer.

The carbon dioxide laser etching only removes pigments in the upper layer of skin so the fruit isn’t damaged and can be tattooed to create curved lines, allowing for logos and words that are easy to read.

The technology had been on the US market previously but it was withdrawn after concerns were raised to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that it could make the fruit vulnerable to decay and pathogens.

University of Florida research has since shown the technology does not increase water loss or facilitiate the entrance of food pathogens and it was approved by the FDA earlier this month.

Final approval

Developer of the technology, Greg Drouillard, is still waiting for the final approval document after a 30-day consultation period before beginning commercial roll out.

The Natural Light Labeling system, licenced by agricultural co-operative Sunkist, works on all produce except leafy greens and corn on the cob but is only currently approved for use on citrus.

The device is an alternative to sticky labels, which are expensive, offer a lack of traceability, are high maintenance and have the risk of losing stickiness, according to Drouillard.

Increased traceability

Drouillard told FoodProductionDaily.com the system offers increased traceability for manufacturers throughout the chain.

Other than leafy greens and corn on the cob it works with any fruit or vegetable, so things that couldn’t be labelled before, now can be.

“It is more secure and the cycle of the fruit can be followed through item level traceability.

"It offers an alternative to adhesive labels, and I believe there is room for both in the market.

The pigment penetrates two to three cell layers, a tomato has 100 cell layers deep so it doesn’t affect the product.”

Former University of Florida scientist Drouillard, who now works for Sunkist Growers, invented the laser-labeling system in 1994 and it was on the market before the FDA withdrew it in 2005.

Drouillard said: “It has undergone a lot of testing to prove it doesn’t harm fruit or human health and once we get the final document from FDA, then we will go all out through Sunkist to bring this to market.

“It can alleviate problems of labels for industry such as expense, lack of traceability, high maintenance and labels losing their stickiness.

“You can type what you want on the laser system such as the PLU [price look-up] number, country of origin, traceability code, product name, brand stamp – anything you want.”

Drouillard added the system was available in other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, but he wanted to gain approval in the US.

It is available in other countries but foreign producers couldn’t ship to the US as it wasn't approved so I didn’t want to concentrate all my efforts abroad and then need to be back [in the US] if something happened.

“We have been waiting and waiting and it will be a slow market penetration at first but in 2005 the phone didn’t stop ringing.

Safety Research

Ed Etxeberria, professor of horticultural sciences at UF’s Citrus Research and Education Center in Florida, described to this publication some of the research undertaken.

“The main FDA concerns were decay, pathogens and to see if the fruit was resistant to water loss.

“The label pasteurizes the surface and sterilizes it so it is not conducive to any pathogens and a layer of wax is sprayed over the label which prevents the introduction of any organism.”

He added the preference of what was next to test with the assistance of the FDA fell with Sunkist.

We have done some preliminary testing in tomatoes and fleshy fruits and it doesn’t really matter what food, there has been zero penetration.”

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