Plastic bans on fruit & veg shine light on laser-marking tech

13 Jan 2022 — Industry appetite for Natural Branding – a technology that lasers markings onto the surface of some fruits and vegetables – is gaining traction amid proliferating plastic packaging bans. Notably, France recently banned retailers from selling 30 different fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic packaging. Spain is destined to impose a similar law in 2023. 

Such regulations – and growing consumer frustration toward “unnecessary” plastic and stickers – open up avenues for Natural Branding. The laser-based technology not only delivers a packaging-free solution for products including bananas, oranges, onions, avocados and watermelons, it can also enhance brand appeal with personalized logos, and boost traceability with individual IDs.

However, as the plastic-out trend gains momentum throughout the packaging industry, warnings of increased food waste and potential hygiene complications continue to mount.

PackagingInsights explores Natural Branding’s potential and limitations with Spain-based creator Laser Food and its Netherlands-based customer Eosta. We also get the perspective of Dr. Gary Ward, CTO at Israeli plastic packaging specialist StePac.

Inside Natural Branding
EU-backed Laser Food first developed its Natural Branding technology in 2006, pursuing a goal to reduce fresh produce labeling’s carbon footprint by 99.9%. In 2013, the European Commission voted to authorize the technology’s use in Europe. 

“Natural Branding makes a very gentle mark on the upper surface of the fruit skin with a laser. In some cases, this mark creates a depigmentation of the skin. In other cases, it causes a reaction that changes the skin’s color,” explains Stéphane Merit, international business development manager at Laser Food.Eosta primarily uses the tech to indicate a product is organic.

“We use specific lasers that have demonstrated they do not damage the fruit (if used correctly) and offer sufficient production capacity. The main idea behind our solution is to provide an industrial level system that can process large volumes of fruit and without affecting the produce’s taste, aroma or shelf life.”

Several major European retailers use Natural Branding to label fresh produce, including Carrefour, ICA, Edeka, Rewe, Delhaize, Lidl, Aldi and Jumbo. The first supermarket to use the technology was Carrefour Spain in 2012. The supermarket giant contacted Laser Food for a solution to its premium watermelon fraud problem – an issue eradicated by Natural Branding.

More recently, ICA supermarkets in Sweden started employing the laser solution on organic avocados, eliminating around 200 km of plastic film during the first year. Other major distributors have since replicated the technology and developed their own laser-marking machines.

“It’s completely safe to eat the fruit and the peel, even the part that is marked,” confirms Paul Hendriks, packaging manager at Eosta. “We use no additional substances to enhance the process.”

“Although laser-marking was around already, we introduced it to the organic produce market in 2016 [on sweet potatoes] with huge success. The Guardian wrote about it, and it caught on all over Europe. We had film crews from as far away as Taiwan who were interested.”

A consensus on food waste
Ward at StePac accepts there is an overuse of plastic packaging in the fresh produce industry. However, he reminds us that it plays a crucial role in protecting fruits and vegetables and reducing waste in supply chains. 

“Fresh produce waste contributes to approximately 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions, yet the plastic packaging used to protect and reduce this number represents a tiny percentage of the total plastic packaging used,” he says.An example of a Laser Food laser-marking machine.

“Before considering banning the use of plastic packaging for fresh fruits and vegetables, it is imperative to ascertain there are alternative solutions in place to preserve quality and reduce waste, and that those solutions are more environmentally friendly.”

However, Merit empathizes that Natural Branding is a solution to the problem of plastic “whenever possible.” Some products will still need to be wrapped in plastic, he agrees.

“But the number of products that can be laser-marked without plastic is growing. For instance, a few years ago, it was unthinkable to sell cucumbers without shrink-wrap plastic. Now, it is possible to sell these same cucumbers with Natural Branding identification and no plastic.”

Meanwhile, Hendriks points out that many fruits and vegetables in supermarkets are unpackaged anyway. Natural Branding is only applied to a selection of products, depending on clients’ preferences, he says.

Ward agrees natural branding is a positive development for the industry and environmental sustainability, but it is not a universal solution.

“Natural Branding is particularly suitable for items with a protective skin that serves as a natural barrier to protect the produce. For those items that don’t have protective skin, packaging is often required to protect and extend shelf life and reduce waste during the supply chain. In such cases, Natural Branding is not suitable, and the branding will continue to be on the packaging,” he adds.

Overhyped hygiene concerns
France’s plastic ban arrives at a time of heightened hygiene concern. According to Innova Market Insights, 59% of global consumers believe packaging’s protective function is more important due to COVID-19. Moreover, 20% favor more plastics during the pandemic, including typically unrecyclable films on fresh produce, while 42% see them as an undesirable necessity. 

Merit accepts the plastic-out trend has been slowed by the pandemic but will revive its momentum post-pandemic. Meanwhile, Hendriks is keen to alleviate any hygiene concerns surrounding unpacked produce.The tech’s flexibility empowers brands to differentiate products with personalized markings.

“If something is packed in plastic, people will still touch it,” he says. “All conventional apples, oranges, avocados, pineapples, pears, tomatoes in all major supermarkets are sold unpacked and always have been – billions of kg per year. Yet supermarkets have never been identified as a point of special concern for the spread of viruses.”

“Unpacked fruits and vegetables are the standard, as they should be. Nature packed them for us. As long as people wash or peel their fruits and vegetables, there is no risk at all. Also, coronavirus is mainly airborne – the chance of transmission through a surface is less than 1 in 10,000, as research shows.”

Plastic ban perspectives
Naturally, plastic packaging bans on fruits and vegetables will push producers into the arms of plastic-free and packaging-free solutions providers.

“This trend will grow and will certainly boost demand,” continues Hendriks. “But Natural Branding can only service a small part of all produce, so non-plastic packaging alternatives are also of major importance.”

Merit agrees that producers are increasingly looking for alternatives to plastic, especially after France’s “very strict” regulation came into force. “We have noticed a significant increase in our activity due to this new regulation in France, and more countries are about to pass similar regulations in the upcoming years,” he says.

However, Ward at StePac urges businesses to conduct life cycle analyses of produce items to understand the environmental impact of their existing packaging versus alternatives before replacing plastic.Natural Branding can also be a weapon for activists.

“As such, the decision to impose a gradual ban on the use of consumer plastic packaging for fresh fruits and vegetables in France seems rash,” he warns. “It is particularly harsh for those companies that have qualified and begun implementing fully recyclable plastic packaging solutions.”

Christmas wishes on avocados
Natural Branding does not require consumables, meaning there is no need to make stock provisions. This flexibility empowers brands to differentiate their product with personalized logos and markings.

“For instance, apart from the regular ‘Bio’ identification or the brand name, it is possible to create logos for special occasions such as Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day or a promotional campaign – the possibilities are endless,” says Merit.

“It is also possible to put an individual ID or traceability number on each piece of fruit, ensuring total traceability by the piece. The fruit can then be identified until it reaches the consumer’s table.”

Eosta primarily uses the technology to indicate a product is organic. “But you can use it for transparency – to lead consumers to a grower’s website so they can see who grew their avocado or pumpkin,” adds Hendriks.

“You can also use it for special occasions – to turn a kiwi into an Easter egg or put a Christmas wish on an avocado.”

By Joshua Poole

This feature is provided by FoodIngredientsFirst’s sister website, PackagingInsights.

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