Laser labelling10 August 2015
Thanks to an innovation by Spain's Laser Food, sticky labels on fruit could become a thing of the past. Laser technology allows manufacturers to print straight on to the fruit without damaging the skin. Stephanie Phillips speaks with Stephane Merit, international sales manager at Marks & Spencer, which is currently testing this method.
Stephanie Phillips: Can you explain the laser labelling technology and how it works?
Stephane Merit: We are based in Valencia, Spain, which is the country's main region for producing citrus fruits. We wanted to find a way of identifying each piece of fruit individually and in a permanent way.
We started looking into ways of doing this and came up with using a laser to write on fruit. To do this there are important things to take into account. First and foremost is the shelf life or the commercial life of the fruit. If your technology is going to damage the fruit, then it's not going to work. We looked for a way of writing on the fruit that would not affect its shelf life.
We use a very gentle laser that leaves a superficial mark on the skin. Basically, it removes the colour through a process called depigmentation. To begin with, the mark was barely visible, so we created a contrast enhancer liquid that interacted with the components of the fruit skin to make the mark more obvious.
You could also buy cheap laser tubing in China, but for the mark to be visible you would need to burn deeper into the skin, thus jeopardising the shelf life of the fruit by causing it to decay.
How does the technology improve the traceability of a product?
When we talk of traceability, we mean the way each piece of fruit can be individually and permanently marked, which until now was impossible. There are some excellent traceability systems, but they involve the trays that hold the fruit in the store or supermarket. Once the end consumer takes an apple from that tray, puts it in a bag and takes it out of the store, traceability is lost. What Laser Food brings is a way to identify each piece of fruit all the way to the moment of consumption.
You can write anything: a PLU number, any kind of code, an expiration or a best before date, can even a code that the customer can use to find out where the food comes from. You can also use technologies such as enhanced reality, where you take a picture of the item with your phone, and then you have all the information on that item.
Was there any demand from the retail sector for this kind of technology?
The retail sector is asking for this because we're providing different solutions. One solution that we talked about is traceability, but this technology is a way of eliminating any kind of paper, glue, ink, and all the energy used to produce and transport these.
One of the important points of our technology is that it reduces the carbon footprint on labelling by 99.9%. This is very important, and this is also why we developed our technology within the eco innovation programme of the European Union.
How could the laser technology be used to manage stock control?
The technology is not intended to manage stock control. It offers a cheap way of labelling. It eliminates paper and waste, and reduces the carbon footprint. It also brings security to the consumer, who can access information on the product that they couldn't before. It also adds a layer of security for retailers and producers. For example, in Spain the retailer Carrefour sells two categories of watermelon: regular and the seedless. The seedless watermelons are a premium product and are more expensive than the other kind. Carrefour said that customers in stores were swapping the labels, peeling them off the expensive items and sticking them on to the cheaper ones, and Carrefour didn't know how to solve this problem. Then the retailer came across our technology, and now they demand that all producers that sell watermelons to Carrefour apply a laser label.
There are other advantages to using laser labelling, such as marketing possibilities. For instance at Halloween, you can put faces on pumpkins. If they sell out, you can order more of the same. And while a supplier may not have enough stickers to supply more, with laser labelling it's merely a matter of pressing a button on a machine.
Not only does laser technology bring a lot of flexibility in terms of labelling, it allows labelling to be used as a communication tool. Your fruit will also stand out on the shelf, as well as having this environmentally friendly edge that is nowadays so important.
In the UK, Marks & Spencer has announced it will be testing the technology. Can you tell us more?
Marks & Spencer is committed to reducing its carbon footprint to the bare minimum. This technology fits into its objectives. The company was very quick to express interest in our technology.
Are there any other companies interested in Laser Food's system?
We are in contact with large retailers in Europe and elsewhere; we are present in all continents. We have machines in five or six countries in Europe, and we started expanding our technology outside of Europe. We receive a lot of interest from all over the world, although we don't yet have machines running in America or Asia. It is basically a technology that is appealing to the producers and retailers alike because it's different.