April 12, 2007 in Nation/World

Laser device scratching out spot on produce

Andrew Bridges Associated Press
 

How it works

The laser works by vaporizing the top layer of skin from produce, exposing the typically lighter layers underneath. That contrast allows the laser etching to stand out. It works well with fruit like peaches, plums and nectarines, but not with cantaloupes (too lumpy) or brown potatoes (insufficient contrast).

WASHINGTON – The days of peeling pesky stickers off apples and tomatoes may soon be over. A Georgia company is seeking federal approval for a laser that etches indelible but edible labels onto the skins of fruits and vegetables.

The laser device could tag all manner of produce, according to Durand-Wayland Inc. The company wants federal regulations amended to allow it, the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday.

The etched logos would be an alternative to the stickers that mark most fruits and vegetables sold in the United States, though it’s not clear they’d be to consumers’ liking. The stickers most commonly bear a standard code, called a produce look-up or PLU code, used to ring up fruits and vegetables at the register. They also can include brand names, logos and country of origin information.

“I don’t like it. I don’t want my fruit lasered. I’ll take a sticker over a laser. The less tampering with fruit, the better,” said Ellen Hamilton, 41, of Alexandria, Va..

Durand-Wayland, a LaGrange, Ga., manufacturer of spraying, packing and labeling machinery, wanted to start selling the $38,000 lasers two years ago, but the FDA told it to hold off until it could show they were safe. Any source of radiation, including the light of a laser, used to treat or process food is considered a food additive.

Durand-Wayland President Fred Durand III said they delivered the agency a three-inch-thick petition with the results of tests that show the technology is safe. The FDA has 180 days to review the findings, filed March 5.

The FDA designated it for expedited review since the technology could improve the agency’s ability to track and trace produce in an outbreak of foodborne disease, said Andy Zajac, who oversees petition review in the FDA’s office of food additive safety. The difficulty of tracing tainted produce back to its source has hampered investigations of past outbreaks, including salmonella linked to tomatoes.

Still, the regulatory agency worries the etching could allow germs to penetrate treated produce. The FDA also wants to know whether the laser affects the fruit or vegetable, including how it compares to cooking.

Durand said test results submitted by the company to the FDA should ease all fears. “The results were very positive, so no problems at all,” he said.

That may not sway consumer Autumn Majack, 33. The Milton, Wash., resident prefers her fruit free of all labels, whether laser etched or stuck on.

“You know what you’re buying. Not unless you have five or six different species of banana, it’s OK – no problem,” Majack said.

The Produce Marketing Association estimates 60 percent of the most commonly sold fruits and vegetables are already labeled for origin, either by country or region, typically with stickers or tags.

© Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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