January/February – 2006
Author: Steven Carruthers
In-line Natural Light Label System – vertical installation.
Revolutionary new laser labelling technology now makes it possible to eliminate awkward adhesive labels on fruit and vegetables. The Natural Light Labelling System is able to etch barcodes, product codes, use-by dates, country-of-origin, logos and graphics on soft and hard skin produce. STEVEN CARRUTHERS writes that the new laser technology offers significant benefits for consumers, retailers, packers, and growers who want to distinguish their product.
(L to R): Damien Gibson, Andrew Keaney and John Scott from Natural Light Technology, NZ.
The revolutionary Natural Light Labelling System unveiled in Sydney at AUSPACK 2005 offers significant benefits for consumers, retailers, packers, as well as hydroponic and greenhouse growers who want to distinguish their product in the marketplace. The development of laser-labelling technology for fresh fruit and vegetables also coincides with mandatory country-of-origin labelling (COOL) regulations soon to be introduced in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. The Natural Light Labelling System, developed by US-based Durant-Wayland, is now being used for practical applications to label fresh fruit and vegetables in the United States and New Zealand. The main benefits of this technology are that it eliminates the use of difficult-to-remove adhesive labels, and it offers product traceability.
How does it work?
The Natural Light Labelling System has been specifically designed to easily integrate into and interface with existing pack-house equipment. The patented in-line laser equipment, which stands one metre high, facilitates printing on produce with precise control without degradation to the product. It does this in much the same way as a magnifying glass concentrates the sun’s rays, however laser technology is more precisely controlled, as it is in eye surgery.
The machine is typically installed horizontally above the packing line. For some installations this is not possible, and the machine is then placed vertically beside the line. However, a vertical installation is the exception rather than the rule. There is no difference in the machinery for a vertical as opposed to a horizontal installation, only the orientation of the machine itself and, of course, the mounting superstructure necessary to install it horizontally.
An in-line Natural Light Label System – horizontal installation.
A close-up view of a vertical installation used to label watermelons.
The Natural Light Label System is used to label watermelons at Coosaw Farms in South Carolina.
The precise control of emitted light removes the pigment layer from the surface of the produce to reveal a contrasting sub-layer. Because this removal process has been designed not to penetrate the surface or skin of the produce, it does not promote decay, reduce shelf-life, or deform the produce. In fact, if you run your finger across an etched label, you will not be able to feel it at all. The end result is sometimes referred to as a tattoo, however, the process is really the opposite of tattooing in that it removes pigment rather than adding it, and the process does not penetrate the skin whereas tattooing uses needles to penetrate the skin and inject dye.
The laser label can reflect the ‘Product Look-Up’ (PLU) code, country-of-origin, grower lot number, use-by date, barcode, or any other requested information. Not only is each piece of produce permanently coded, but the specific information can be stored electronically for any period of time.
The laser light printing process is environmentally friendly by using no consumables to label the produce.
The main features and benefits of the new laser technology are:
– Instant PLU change-over.
– Eliminates the high cost of adhesive labels.
– Eliminates consumer complaints with adhesive labels.
– No waste and very low energy costs.
– A ‘Green Product’. Favourable to the environment and consumer health.
– Capable of lot tracking, traceability, information gathering, etc.
– No consumables.
– Very low operational maintenance costs.
– Only one laser head per lane is required to meet information requirements.
– Requires no additional personnel to maintain constant operation.
– Packers no longer have to deal with inventory overheads, operational and maintenance costs that are associated with adhesive labels.
– Capable of marking produce that adhesive labels could not i.e. cucumbers.
– Capable of country-of-origin marking.
– Capable of programming in multiple languages.
– Can be used with existing pack-house equipment.
– Speed up to 14 pieces per second.
– All natural process that never comes into contact with the produce.
Laser technology only etches the outside skin of this cucumber product, offering a contrast of colours against which the laser label is etched.
Country-of-origin label requirements
The introduction of country-of-origin labelling regulations in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, makes this a timely technology. All produce in the United States is required to have a label identifying its country of origin no later than October 2006, with one year to comply. Depending on how the statute is interpreted, growers may not be allowed to sell any fruit without a label, including single pieces of fruit and vegetables.
Australia and New Zealand introduced mandatory country-of-origin regulations in late 2005 that provide consumers with clear and unambiguous information on the source of a food product, both packaged and unpackaged, including single pieces of fruit and vegetables. Like the United States, the food industry in Australia and NZ will have a phase-in period.
Whether or not COOL is made mandatory, the technology is still an attractive alternative to gummed labels.
Will customers buy etched fruit?
A consumer research study commissioned by Durand-Wayland in early 2004 covered four geographically dispersed US markets – Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta. The primary focus of the study was on apples, stone fruits and hard-skin fruits. A key finding from the study was that consumers don’t like sticker labels, which they found hard to remove, leave messy, unhealthy gum residue, and end up on the floor or stuck on the consumer.
Natural Light Label System installed at the Sunkist Ventura, California, facility.
When educated about laser labelling, consumers preferred it to the current labelling on edible skin/hard skin fruit and produce. Laser labels also mean no risk of biting or swallowing stickers, and less chance for contamination. For consumers, laser labelling will mean there will be no messy glue to wash off the fruit, and no chance of choking on an inedible piece of paper or plastic. Other benefits cited by consumers included environmentally friendly aspects, and the fact that produce can be traced.
Traceability is an important aspect because produce is perishable and it doesn’t come with a ‘use-by’ date. Now it will be possible to brand single produce quickly to not only identify where it has come from, but also with a use-by date under optimum storage conditions. Traceability also means contaminated or diseased fruit can be identified by batch numbers.
Will the consumer pay more for etched produce? Obviously, that will depend on the packer. However, the Natural Light Labelling System represents a cost savings to most packers.
What’s in it for retail outlets?
For most produce, and most applications, the percentage of produce that receives a label is well over 99% using the Natural Light Labelling System. The developer also reports the numbers are permanent, larger and easier to read than adhesive labels. For retail outlets, this means no more errors or time wasted at the checkout line because a cashier is confused about whether that tomato is hydroponic or organically grown. Laser-etched labels also overcome the problem of customers switching labels, thus eliminating losses from specialty produce being passed off as a cheaper variety.
There is also the cleanliness aspect. Laser labels mean no more problems with labels adhering to displays, checkout conveyors, floors, or other products. There are no longer any microbe-harbouring adhesive in the fresh produce area.
What’s in it for the packers?
Laser technology reduces the packer’s consumable costs for labels. It also eliminates the problem of adhesive labels that don’t adhere to the produce you are packing. They can end up everywhere – in your delicate machinery, in employees’ hair and clothing, on the bottom of your shoes. Remember, those labels that now decorate your packing house come at a cost. Also, there is the problem of storing this season’s left-over labels over the off season, only to find that the adhesive has deteriorated by the next season and the labels won’t adhere.
How you do like this scenario: All of your hard work has paid off in the shipment of some beautiful tomatoes. Trucks take it away to the wholesaler or agent who in turn sells it to retailers for consumers to enjoy. Then, you get a phone call from your agent. It turns out that only 71% of the fruit has labels on it. There was nothing wrong with your tomatoes; just the label.
There is no per piece cost with laser labelling technology. Maintenance and cleaning costs are also reduced dramatically. With fewer moving parts, the Natural Light labelling system is more reliable than conventional labelling machines. This means less down time working on equipment, changing reels, clearing jams, etc.
Another benefit of this technology is the virtual zero lead time required for one-time promotional logos. There is no investment in expensive inventory because labels can be customised quickly for individual retailers.
The Natural Light labelling system eliminates the high cost of adhesive labels with strong benefits for consumers, retailers, wholesalers, packers and growers. It is also an opportunity for hydroponic and greenhouse growers to distinguish their product in the market place. The introduction of mandatory country-of-origin regulations in the United States, Australia and New Zealand also makes the Natural Light Labelling System a timely and relatively inexpensive technology compared to conventional sticker-type equipment. A label that offers traceability and can be eaten safely, is good news for everyone.
For further information contact:
Natural Light Technology Ltd, PO Box 22 037, Otahuhu, Auckland, New Zealand
Ph: Fax: +64 (0)9 917-1472
About the author
Steven Carruthers is the Managing Editor of Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses, a bi-monthly magazine published in Sydney, Australia, and Vice-President of the Australian Hydroponics & Greenhouse Association (AHGA), Australia’s peak industry body. Steven is the recipient of the Australian Business and Specialist Publishers Association (ABSP) Bell Award for ‘Best Small Publisher of the Year’ in 1998, 2000 and 2001 and was highly commended in 1999. Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses is the recipient of the ABSP’s Bell Award for ‘Best Specialist Magazine of the Year’ in 2000 and 2001. Steven is also an affiliated member of the International Federation of the Periodical Press and author of several books including the bestseller, Hydroponic Gardening published by Lothian Press.