Nature has the best packaging logistics in the world. In theory. From the avocado to the courgette, fruit and vegetables go from farm to the shelf with safe, clean and sustainable packaging. However, labelling requirements, logos and manufacturing details tend to thwart purely organic packaging. Up to now, plastic has been required for labelling of goods, even for ecological foodstuffs. However, with natural branding, a revolution now lies ahead in the supermarket. How does laser labelling work for fruit and vegetables?
The contradiction could not be greater: Ironically, organic fruit and vegetables reach the supermarket packed in plastic, while products from conventional farming are offered loose.
The reason for this is as simple as it is serious. For both consumers and staff at the tills should recognise the difference between the two production processes at first glance. And to do this, organic products in the supermarket have to be given extensive labels, logos and markings, which it has not been possible to do up to now without stickers or packaging.
This interim step is not necessary in an organic shop or weekly market, since unpackaged foods do not have to hold their ground in the fresh produce department against conventional competition. However, organic is booming, particularly in the supermarket. The requirement for plastic packaging therefore increases – at least as long as traditional methods of labelling are used. It is precisely at this point that natural branding comes into play.
In the meantime, one question is justified: Why is the packaging frenzy not simply reversed? Organic could be loose and traditional products under film? The response becomes clear when looking at the sales figures. Conventionally produced foods still top the sales lists. The plastic mountain would therefore become ever larger. Therefore, organic and natural branding simply go together.
With natural branding a laser removes the topmost pigment layers of the natural skin in a fraction of a second, and imprints lettering or a logo in precisely the right size, exactly the right position and with an individual design.
This method is often compared with tattooing, but to turn it around: In the same way as tattoo removal, colour pigments are not added but are destroyed by the focused light. Because the topmost layer shows the most intensive colouring of the skin, the marking of the goods is imprinted into the fruit almost like a negative impression.
Natural branding thereby uses the only true ecological packaging, without altering the flavour or the freshness of the produce. Remnants of adhesive, plastic and colour are a thing of the past with this method. Not to mention additional packaging material.
The idea of marking the skin directly is not new. Ultimately, the organic industry has been seeking a way out of the contradiction of ecology and outer packaging for years. In conventional farming too, the discussion continues as to whether there is a reduced obligation for outer packaging here.
However, any other method – whether it is stickers or colour marking – has not solved the problem up to now. For additives, chemicals and pigments have always had to be used. Most methods also prove to be uneconomical. They require manpower and extra work, and ultimately still require plastic and outer packaging.
Now a laser is a technical achievement and is of course a long way from being truly natural. However, the natural branding method does not add any materials. It only takes away colour pigments that occur completely naturally in the skin of the produce.
The focused light beam remains so close to the surface that the actual substance under the skin is neither damaged nor modified. Consumers can also simply remove the lettering – depending on the fruit– along with the skin and compost it. Or eat it with the skin.
Up to now, the first nationwide pilot projects for natural branding have only concentrated on fruits that have a particularly thick, non-edible skin. Retail companies wanted to remove resistance to the method and thereby increase the acceptance of consumers.
These initial steps have already started to be successful, but natural branding will only catch on if more fruits and vegetables are involved – and if branding can be carried out automatically and without additional cost and effort for producers. For despite all claims regarding ecology, the question of the economic efficiency remains a central factor for producers and companies.
This is precisely where the innovations of EcoMark come into play. The machines are able to mark even the finest citrus fruits with a laser, which appeared to be unsuited to this method up to now. Besides this, branding is carried out in a completely automated way and with a labelling time of around 0.3 seconds per logo. Projected to a whole crate of fruit or vegetables, the processing time therefore decreases enormously.
The natural labels require neither preparation time nor templates: Coordinated control software can deal with practically any produce labelling – and it takes just a few clicks to alter the label.
This not only makes changing between different products easier, but also ensures that new features can be implemented with regard to labelling obligations, marketing specifications or design ideas straight away and without label rejects.
Natural branding is also more cost-effective than stickers and plastic packaging and is currently not only the most ecological but also the most economical method for labelling fruit and vegetables. Some conventional products are therefore already being labelled using natural branding.
There is extremely positive feedback from consumers. However, scepticism with regard to natural branding has not yet died down completely for all consumers. This is for several reasons. On the one hand it is to do with a lack of knowledge about the method. Ultimately, the layperson finds it difficult to understand that a laser is able to destroy pigments precisely to the micrometre without affecting the actual skin.
Hence, the first broad attempts were limited to particularly thick-skinned products. However, this has nothing to do with the actual effectiveness of the modern laser, which can automatically compensate for height differences of up to 50 millimetres – provided the correct machine is used.
On the other hand, consumers would like proof that natural branding really does not have any effect on the quality of the product. This proof should ideally be provided by independent tests. The first certificates are already available from recognised universities. This should be sufficient proof that natural branding is permissible throughout Europe, and innovative companies are offering relevant software and machines.
Natural branding is not least about changing perception: customers have become accustomed to seeing (organic) products displayed in plastic packaging in the supermarket. The well-known colourful organic labels are also imprinted in the memory.
As with free plastic bags no longer being available in the retail trade, or the introduction of the deposit and return system, it will take some time before natural branding is an everyday matter, like the material bag or the returnable bottle. Nevertheless, it will prevail.
For all new features up to now to reduce plastic waste have become firmly established and widely accepted. Even if vociferous concerns were expressed to start with.
Customers know there is no alternative to completely avoiding plastic when it comes to environmental protection. Natural branding is simply the next stage on the way to a life without pointless plastic, replacing this with plenty of freshness, naturalness and care for the environment.