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August 3, 2005

Would you eat a tattooed tomato?

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They are no longer coming: they are already here (above).

Julia Moskin wrote a front page story for the July 19 New York Times about the rise of tattooing as an alternative to those annoying stickers on every single piece of produce you buy these days.

The tattooed fruit is created using a laser which etches the price look–up number (PLU) and any other information the retailer wishes directly onto the skin of the fruit or vegetable.

The tattoo is permanent, removing only the outer pigment to reveal a contrasting layer underneath and make the tattoo readable and scannable.

The lasers cut and cauterize the skin of the fruit or vegetable almost simultaneusly, similar to lasers used in surgery; the skin of fruit that has been laser–etched remains airtight.

It's possible to barcode the produce with its origin, when it was picked, even how many calories it has per serving.

Advertising might cover a green pepper using the same technology.

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Here's the Times article.

    Tired of Prying Off Stickers? Tattooed Fruit Is on the Way

    A pear is just a pear, except when it is also a laser-coded information delivery system with a security clearance.

    And that is what pears -- not to mention organic apples, waxy cucumbers and delicate peaches -- are becoming in some U.S. supermarkets around the country.

    A new technology being used by produce distributors employs lasers to tattoo fruits and vegetables with their names, identifying numbers, countries of origin and other information that helps speed distribution.

    The marks are burned onto the outer layer of the skin, visible to consumers and cashiers alike.

    The process, government-approved and called safe by the industry, may sound sinister.

    But it was designed with the consumer in mind: laser coding could mean the end of those tiny, stubborn stickers that have to be picked, scraped or yanked off produce.

    Sticker-removal duty took Jean Lemeaux of Clarksville, Texas, half an hour one day last week.

    "I was picking all the little stickers from the Piggly Wiggly off my plums and my avocado pears and my peaches," said Lemeaux, 76.

    "Then I had to make fruit salad out of the ones that got hurt when I took the stickers off, and then I had to wash the glue off the other ones before I put them in the fruit bowl."

    "One time," she said, "I got up the next morning and looked in the mirror, and there were two of them up in my hair."

    The stickerless technology has a broader purpose, too: It is part of the produce industry's latest effort to identify and track, whether for profit or for security, everything Americans eat.

    Since 9/11, the industry has been encouraged to develop "track and trace" technology to allow protection of the food supply at various stages of distribution.

    In addition, next year federal regulations will require all imported produce to be labeled with the country of origin.

    The tattooed fruit is being sold in stores nationwide as other tracing methods also are being tested: miniaturized bar coding and cameras with advanced recognition technology that can identify fruits and vegetables at the checkout counter.

    In Japan, apples have been sold with scannable bar coding etched into the wax on their skin.

    No one knows exactly when every piece of fruit will be traceable, but the trend is clear: Wal-Mart already requires all pallets delivered to its distribution centers to have a radio frequency identification check.

    But the carrier of information about fruits and vegetables in America remains the tiny sticker called the PLU, for "price look-up."

    It is unpopular not just with consumers but with the industry itself.

    "If they are sticky enough to stay on the fruit through the whole distribution and sales network, they are so sticky that the customer can't get them off," said Michael Hively, general manager of Bland Farms in Reidsville, Ga., the country's largest grower and packer of sweet Vidalia onions.

    But apart from the occasional crate of locally grown produce, "most supermarkets no longer accept fruit and vegetables that are not stickered," said Francis Garcia, a vice president of Sinclair Systems in Fresno, Calif., a major manufacturer of the stickers and of the automated systems that blow them onto fruit at packing houses.

    To producers, the stickers are messy, expensive and inefficient.

    "The industry knows that the days of the PLU sticker are numbered, and that there will have to be new systems," said Don Harris, vice president for produce at Wild Oats, a national chain of markets, and chairman of the industry's Produce Electronic Identification Board.

    "Customers do not like them, and they don't hold enough information anyway."

    In 2002, Durand-Wayland, a fruit grower and distributor in Georgia, bought the patent for a process that etches the price look-up number and any other desired information into the skin of the fruit.

    Greg Drouillard, who patented laser coding for produce and who now works for Durand-Wayland, said the process permanently tattoos each piece of fruit, removing only the outer pigment to reveal a contrasting layer underneath and make the tattoo readable, even scannable.

    "With the right scanning technology, the produce could even be bar-coded with lots of information: where it comes from, who grew it, who picked it, even how many calories it has," said Fred Durand III, president of Durand-Wayland.

    "You could have a green pepper that was completely covered with coding. Or you could sell advertising space."

    Bland Farms, the Vidalia grower, has started shipping laser-coded onions to customers including Wal-Mart and Publix.

    Sunkist has used it on oranges sold in some California markets, and is testing it on lemons, using blueberry-based ink for more greater contrast.

    Henry Affeldt Jr., director of research for Sunkist, said the technology works the same way lasers work in surgery, cutting and cauterizing almost simultaneously.

    The fruit's skin remains airtight, Affeldt said, and the mark is permanent.

    "When there was only one kind of apple at the supermarket, it was easy," said Harris of Wild Oats.

    "But now at some markets you will have 12 different kinds of apples. You might even have lots of the same kind of apple: conventional Fuji, organic Fuji, fair trade. You can't expect cashiers to know them all, much less to recognize a cherimoya when they see one."

    But can laser coding and beautiful fruit bowls co-exist?

    "Anything that permanently changes the fruit is going to be a hard sell," Harris said, "especially to buyers of organic produce."

August 3, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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