Laser la­belling tested on or­ganic pro­duce

Swedish su­per­mar­ket chain tries out high-tech beams in place of plas­tic brand­ing

The Peterborough Examiner - - LIFE - JAMES BROOKS THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

MALMO, Swe­den — Some­thing high-tech is hap­pen­ing in the pro­duce aisle at some Swedish su­per­mar­kets, where laser marks have re­placed la­bels on the or­ganic av­o­ca­dos and sweet potatoes.

Swedish su­per­mar­ket chain ICA started ex­per­i­ment­ing in De­cem­ber with “nat­u­ral brand­ing,” a process that uses low-en­ergy car­bon diox­ide lasers to re­move the pig­ment from the outer skins of fruits and veg­eta­bles.

The laser beams cre­ate tat­too­like pat­terns — in this case the prod­uct’s name, coun­try of ori­gin and code num­ber — sim­i­lar to the way hot irons brand cat­tle. If its test is suc­cess­ful, ICA, which has 1,350 stores across Swe­den, hopes to cut down on the stick­ers and pack­ag­ing it now uses to iden­tify its or­ganic pro­duce.

“It’s a new tech­nique, and we are search­ing for a smarter way of brand­ing our prod­ucts due to the fact that we think we have too much un­nec­es­sary plas­tic ma­te­rial or pack­ag­ing ma­te­rial on our prod­ucts,” said Peter Hagg, the chain’s se­nior man­ager for fruits and veg­eta­bles.

ICA de­cided to start with sweet potatoes and av­o­ca­dos be­cause their peels are not typ­i­cally eaten and have a ten­dency to shed the stick­ers nor­mally used to brand pro­duce. But branded broc­coli and en­graved egg­plants may not be far be­hind.

Later this year, the chain plans to test laser-mark­ing mel­ons plus some items with con­sum­able skins to gauge con­sumer re­ac­tion. Hagg claims laser­ing has no neg­a­tive ef­fects on the fruit and veg­eta­bles.

“It’s very del­i­cate. Be­cause the mark is not go­ing through the skin in any way, it doesn’t af­fect the qual­ity or taste of the prod­uct,” he said.

En­gi­neer Jonas Kul­len­dorff, 29, says he ap­proves of the method, if it re­duces pack­ag­ing waste.

“If it’s (a) more sus­tain­able alternative, I’m all for it,” Kul­len­dorff said. “If it’s less pack­ag­ing ma­te­ri­als, that’s a good thing.”

Laser la­belling has been used in Aus­tralia and New Zealand since 2009 and was ap­proved for use in Euro­pean Union coun­tries in 2013, ac­cord­ing to Eosta, the Nether­lands-based pro­duce sup­plier that is work­ing with ICA to test the tech­nol­ogy in Swe­den.

Eosta says it sold more than 725,000 packs of or­gan­i­cally grown av­o­ca­dos to the su­per­mar­ket chain in 2015. Pack­ing them re­quired about 220 kilo­me­tres of plas­tic wrap. The av­o­ca­dos etched by Eosta now sit in open bins with­out stick­ers or pack­ag­ing.

Laser mark­ing can’t be used on all pro­duce. Cit­rus fruit, for ex­am­ple, has the abil­ity to heal it­self, mean­ing the etch­ings would dis­ap­pear af­ter just a few hours. Pack­ag­ing still is de­sir­able in some cases to ex­tend a prod­uct’s shelf life, Hagg said.

“The plas­tic brand­ing — there is of course pos­i­tive things with it,” he said. “But in some items it’s just un­nec­es­sary, be­cause it doesn’t bring you bet­ter shelf life. It just brings you ex­tra costs.”

Cen­tral to the trial’s suc­cess will be con­sumer re­sponse and whether shop­pers are happy to eat some­thing that’s been zapped by a laser.

“I think it’s a re­ally good idea (for) the en­vi­ron­ment,” said Emma Jepps­son, a cus­tomer in the store.

JAMES BROOKS/AP

Laser branded sweet potatoes are dis­played at the ICA Kvan­tum su­per­mar­ket in Malmo, Swe­den. Some­thing high-tech is hap­pen­ing in the pro­duce aisle at some Swedish su­per­mar­kets, where laser marks have re­placed la­bels on the or­ganic av­o­ca­dos and sweet potatoes.

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