The launch of the third generation LASER MARK machine by European firm Laser Food and its global marketing and distribution partner JBT Foodtech could make precision technology a more accessible, less invasive, cost-effective, energy efficient and therefore attractive proposition for unique labelling of fruit and veg on supermarket shelves. Produce Business talks to one of the people behind the technology, who says its functionality has great potential for extending traceability and food safety methods to the shelf and into consumers’ homes
The facts first: the next-generation LASER MARK machine (LMS-3) benefits from the latest precision technology, such as an HD system for new-generation lasers. It can mark every single piece of fruit or veg that passes through it, with individualised information, at a speed of up to 54,000 pieces per hour.
What is often overlooked at moments like these though is that the technology is also advancing thanks to the experience Laser Food has built up in the field of laser labelling for fresh produce since its early development work began in 2005.
“The new machine is more accurate, it works faster and uses less power and energy,” says Stephane Merit, head of international business development at Laser Food 2007, SL. “Having worked extensively with people in the industry, the prime focus was to ensure that the laser is able to pass with as little impact as possible over the skin of the fruit – we have achieved that and added in a lot more flexibility to the ways the machine can be used.
“It has been a gradual progress since we launched, but as we move along with the development, we are finding new opportunities that we didn’t perhaps expect or predict. In the last 12 months, for example, we have found that the technology works very well with fresh coconuts and Thai customers are shipping product into Rotterdam in bulk where it is being repacked and laser labelled for European customers. It’s an exciting development for us and one we will continue to explore.”
Retailers and their suppliers find the branding and marketing opportunities to their liking, he says, but they have also found auxiliary uses for the technology. “To date, the typical user for our technology is the packer, whether they have their own production or not, and the importer that repacks and re-exports,” says Merit. “Growing sales in retail is the most obvious driver; when people are searching for an innovative way to differentiate a new or existing product, to brand it, give it a permanent ID or highlight key messages to the consumer.”
First major success story
In France, however, the technology has already been used to an entirely different end by national retailer Carrefour. “They had a problem with customers switching labels between regular and premium produce items in store, and it was very difficult to stop because the products were similar when they got to the checkout.
“We had the solution, as we could label every piece of fruit in the Carrefour Select range of seeded and seedless watermelon individually, and they enlisted our help. They asked their suppliers to use our machine and for the packers it was a way of making sure that their product would be easily identifiable in store. The project not only saved Carrefour a lot of money and trouble, but it also meant that more innocent consumers were not picking up fruit that had an incorrect label on it, because someone else had switched it. Additionally, suppliers were protected against any claims that might have come their way on fruit that was not in fact their fruit.
“Traceability for many products is controlled by most companies up to the point the product goes into the store in a box. Just think if there is a recall of watermelons, as we have seen in the USA in the past – trying to track down all of that product would be extremely difficult if it wasn’t labelled individually or the label, as often happens is no longer on the fruit. A laser label leaves no room for debate and could prove very important in the search for optimum food safety.
“I’d say it was our first major success story and it highlighted that there are many ways to use our products and services. There are endless ways we could go with this and I know there’s a lot of work ahead.”
The LASER MARK machine itself is environment-friendly, he claims, from its energy-efficient operation to the use of foodstuff-based contrast liquid to create the laser labels printed superficially onto the fruit or vegetable. The product has also been granted an official organic seal by the European Union.
Laser Food has exhibited at several European shows in the last year, including the London Produce Show & Conference and has seen its awareness-building exercise pay dividends. “In London, for instance, we spoke to produce buyers and technical managers from the large chains, as well as buyers from other countries around the world,” Merit says. “We have a lot of customers contacting us – there is a real desire to find out more about what we can deliver. At Fruit Attraction in Madrid, the team from Kanzi apples handed out fruit labelled using our new machine, which was another great initiative for us.”
Laser Food has also extended its partnership with JBT Foodtech, which will see Laser Food also represent JBT’s conventional labelling in Spain.
The first distribution and marketing deal was struck in late 2014. “Laser Food celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2016 and after five years of pure development, we only really began marketing the product in 2011,” says Merit. “While it felt we had made a huge amount of progress, the reality is it was still a small start-up company that was still at the beginning when we went into partnership with JBT.
“We had reached a certain point in our development and realised we could do the rest by ourselves. Europe was our thing, but to develop worldwide, as this machinery has to, we were at the very beginning. JBT understands about being at the cutting edge of technology – they are responsible for the development of Laser Food worldwide, in close co-operation with us.
“Now we have a worldwide network of offices, sales people and local expertise that will help us stay in line with regional standards and regulations. JBT was instrumental for instance in covering that off in Thailand – it would have been far harder to do that without them.”
Watch this educational video to view Laser Food’s laser labelling techniques.