Is Laser Etching a Safer Alternative to Stickers for Labeling Produce?
Photo courtesy of Sunkist
I've always been curious about how green it is to pick up a piece of organic fruit that has two or three different stickers pasted onto it. Each piece of fruit in the pile sporting several stickers has got to add up in terms of material waste and a little boost in the carbon footprint. So, would laser etching be a greener, safer alternative? While it's been approved in a variety of countries, it has yet to make it into the US. Instead of paper stickers, there is a new, patented technology that etches the information into the fruit skin. A low-energy carbon dioxide laser beam is used instead of stickers, and it has been licensed for use on a variety of fruits and vegetables. So far, it is used in New Zealand, Australia, and Pacific Rim countries and has approval for Asia, South Africa, Central and South America, Canada, and the European Union. It will arrive in the US soon, after the FDA finishes its approval process.
There are a lot of questions that get raised, however, such as does it do any damage to the fruit or vegetables, is the etched part safe to eat or does that have to be cut away, does each store, distributor, or packing house have to have its own machine, does it use more or less energy or materials than stickers, and so on.
"Little information is available on the impact of this new technology on the overall quality of labeled produce, especially its effect on water loss and decay during prolonged storage", said Dr. Ed Etxeberria, who headed the research team comprised of scientists from the University of Florida and the USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS).
After being tested on grapefruits, it seems to be a safe and effective alternative to sticker labeling, even for stored fruits, but probably won't replace it entirely, let alone very broadly in the near future.
Photo credit ARS/USDA via slashfood
According to Slashfood, a USDA official has stated that the labels won't change the taste of the etched fruits and veggies.
Jan Narciso, a research microbiologist with the USDA's Citrus and Subtropical Products Laboratory in Winter Haven, FL, states: "Not at all," Narciso says. The laser beam penetrates the outer layer of the fruit or vegetable's cells, exposing a bit of the pith. "What this does is just penetrates the few cells of that colored layer and exposes the underlying layer. So it doesn't go anywhere near the part of the fruit that you eat. It's just on the peel."
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