08 Jun 2018 --- Dutch supermarket chain Jumbo has launched a so-called “natural label” on a selection of its organic vegetables range, marking a move into the mainstream for the technology. The “natural label” is achieved through the use of laser technology that makes it possible to display the indication of “organic” directly onto the produce, without the need for additional packaging material. The method holds potential for further retailers who are looking to reduce plastic packaging and reduce their environmental footprint.
“Packaging material has an important function in certain food and vegetables when it comes to health and safety. However, organic fruit and vegetables are packaged in plastic because it is legally required to make a distinction in the stores between regular fruit and vegetables and organic produce. Because biologic [organic] is the smallest group of products, it is packaged with an eye on having the least environmental impact. So, where possible, we look for alternatives,” a Jumbo spokesperson tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
Indeed, EU regulation on organic produce specifies that consumers must be able to clearly recognize organic produce from conventional ranges. This has spurred 'a great growth of our technology in the organic sector',” Stephane Merit, International Business Development Manager at Laser Food, the supplier of the laser technology, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
“At Jumbo, we try to limit our impact on the environment as much as possible. The subject of packaging has our attention and our starting point is that we want to use as little packaging material and be as sustainable as possible. And this laser technique is a good example of this,” the Jumbo spokesperson adds.
Jumbo explains that consumers are increasingly concerned about environment and health and, arguably, this may be even more relevant or important to the consumer who chooses to buy organic.
Although the laser technique is, so far, only applied to ginger, zucchini and butternut squash at Jumbo, “The method is suitable for all kinds of fruits and vegetables,” the spokesperson explains. However, it is not suitable for “oranges, mandarins, lemons and pomegranates. The peel of those fruits can heal the laser imprint, so the brand is not visible anymore after a while. We are investigating which organic products can be further fitted with a natural label.”
However, it is important to note that Laser Food described to FoodIngredientsFirst that they do indeed have a patented invention that allows the use of laser technology on fruits such as oranges, mandarins, lemons and pomegranates. The technology is coined contrast liquid; it is sprayed on the fruit skin after the mark has been made by the laser and triggers a reaction. The mark then becomes visible and the fruit skin is not affected. Furthermore, the contrast liquid is not a dye and was approved by the EU in its regulation 510/2013 and certified organic in 2017, Merit adds.
Laser technology has seen growth across regions in recent years, according to Merit, and can be found in retailers including ICA, Carrefour, Edeka, Rewe, Delhaize, Lidl, Spar and Marks & Spencers, who are largely using it in single items as opposed to entire ranges. Although the laser technology has been available for some years, it was initially aimed at reducing the use of stickers on fresh produce. However, Merit explains that its role is now within the plastic elimination space, which makes it hugely relevant today. Jumbo’s adoption of “natural labels” for the organic range marks an important move into the mainstream which, Merit hopes, will lead to other major players adopting the technology more widely.
Laser labels in the context of plastic reduction
Recently headlines have been alit with the news of supermarkets pledging to ditch plastic, in response to regulatory and consumer pressures. Earlier this year, it was announcedClick to Enlarge that 40 major players were uniting under the UK Plastics Pact, which plans to eradicate single-use plastic from the supply chain. The UK Plastics Pact claims to be the first of its kind in the world. It will be replicated in other countries to form a "global movement for change" as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative.
Moreover, the principal targets of the initiative emphasize the need for recycling and collection of packaging, while also revising packaging materials to make them all reusable, recyclable or compostable. However, laser label technology arguably brings a further critical method for reducing plastic: it does not use any packaging at all.
In the words of Merit from Laser Food, “If you consider that every laser mark that is made on a fruit means at least one little sticker less or one piece of flow-pack less will be disposed of in nature. ICA, shortly after they launched the use of our technology on some of their produce boasted that, thanks to the use of laser mark, they were going to eliminate 200km of flow-pack plastic during one year.”
FoodIngredientsFirst also spoke to Roberta Arbinolo, Communications Officer at Zero Waste Europe on the use of laser packaging as a viable method to reduce the plastic packaging for fresh produce:
“Laser labels can play a role in reducing the application of plastic packaging. This is important, as plastic packaging is highly problematic for waste management and the environment. Europeans, on average, throw away more than 30kg of plastic packaging per person per year. The majority of plastic packaging is used only once, with 95 percent of its value lost to the global economy after this first use (worth an estimated €100 billion annually), and most of this goes to landfill or is incinerated,” says Arbinolo.
“Laser marking can help reduce this, allowing us to provide information such as origin and barcodes without the need for packaging or stickers, saving resources and reducing emissions (laser marking generates 1 percent of the carbon emissions of a typical sticker on an item of fruit).”
“Some retailers are taking steps such as introducing laser marking on certain products, however, this is still not the norm and much more could and Click to Enlargeshould be done to reduce over packaging.”
“Many packaging practices used by the food industry and retailers are implemented to support economic efficiencies and marketing and brand objectives rather than to preserve food or provide essential information to the consumer. These practices, such as multipacks and pre-determined packaging formats, can actually lead to both plastic and food waste,” she adds.
“Producers, importers, exporters, packers and retailers of fresh fruits & vegetables are increasingly aware of their responsibility and are all starting to adopt measures to fight against this problem. Many of them have found a solution in our technology and we are sure that this is only the beginning,” Merit concludes.
Laser technology ushers in the possibility to completely eradicate the use of packaging for certain types of fresh produce, as opposed to packaging it another kind of packaging that happens to be biodegradable or compostable. Yet, the necessity of biobased and biodegradable packaging is huge for many food products.
By Laxmi Haigh
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