- Published: Thursday, 26 May 2011
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Tattoos on fruit are set to replace stickers as farmers seek out environmentally-friendly alternatives to labels for produce that already comes in its own natural packaging.
Fruits with printed skins are already on supermarket shelves in Spain, Sweden, and the UK, but in Australia stickers, wax and plastic wrap are still the most common ways fresh produce is branded.
Plastic labels are set to become a thing of the past, though, as farmers listen to consumer demand for less packaging.
Among those pursuing alternatives is Matthew Abbott from Rabbits Organics banana farm at Mena Creek in far-north Queensland.
"One of the big problems that we have at the moment is being able to brand our fruit so we can sell conventional and organic side-by-side in the shop," Mr Abbott said.
"At the moment most of the organic fruit that is sold in a shop is wrapped in plastic and we are really trying to get away from that."
Cross section view of banana with skin on showing laser logo not penetrating the skin
The laser logo method brands only the skin. (Supplied: Matthew Abbott)
Inked banana skins
The banana farmer has tried using elastic bands to brand his fruit but has found printing logos directly onto the skins is the most promising option.
Mr Abbott has trialled two types of ink but the process has had its faults.
"We're trying to find a solution that we can do in our shed when the fruit's green," Mr Abbott said.
"When it ripens it goes into a cold room and it gets moisture on the fruit and the ink. If it's touched when it's wet, rubs off."
Looking to laser technology
He is now looking further afield and recently took part in a worldwide Nuffield Australia scholarship study tour, during which he came across a similar but more effective method.
A bunch of bananas, each piece of fruit with a Rabbit Organic logo written on it in green ink
Inks so far have proven problematic because the logos can rub off when exposed to moisture. (Supplied: Matthew Abbott)
"One of the things I found was a machine that uses laser technology to write on the fruit," Mr Abbott said.
"It's got a conveyor belt that feeds the machine so the fruit gets lasered and then gets packed out the other end."
It takes about a fifth of a second to print each piece of fruit and Mr Abbott said as long as the laser was set up at least 30 centimetres from the produce, the branding does not penetrate the skin or affect shelf life or eating quality.
"It's burning the skin of the fruit but when you cut open the banana it just looks like ink on the surface," he said.Mr. Abbott
The laser technology is already being used on melons and citrus fruits and Mr Abbott is now working with its maker, Spanish-based Laser Food, to develop a system suitable for banana packing sheds.
"The technology can be there but if you haven't got a system around it that can be functional when it goes into your shed it can be just too hard to make it work," he said.
"We're talking to them about that, so let's see where that goes."
He said the initial outlay for a laser machine was expensive, but over time it would prove more cost effective than stickers or plastic.