Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Fruit tattoos

Starting this winter (2007), you should start to see citrus fruits at your grocery without those annoying little adhesive labels. The Sunkist company will be the first distributor in this country to label their fruits using a new technology called Natural Light Labeling. The technology was introduced over a year ago, but it has taken this long to be certified by the FDA.

I was fascinated by this idea, so I called the guy who developed the technology. His name is Greg Drouillard and he kindly spent a good bit of time with me on the phone explaining how it works. The way a fruit or vegetable gets labeled is with a teeny, short-duration laser pulse. It removes about .005% of the skin's pigment. This does not in any way affect the shelf life of the produce, because the amount of skin removed is on the cellular level. You would need an electron microscope to even see any depression in the skin. In the case of light-skinned produce (like lemons), a very small amount of food-grade pigment is added to make the label legible.

In addition to being of interest to consumers who are tired of scraping off those pesky little labels (or, in my case, forgetting about them and ending up with them in the recipe), it is apparently also of interest to Homeland Security. They're interested because food can easily be tracked and identified because there is no way to alter the label since it's integral to the skin.

According to Drouillard, only nonedible-skin produce has been approved so far, but edible-skin produce should be approved in a couple of months. Rats, I forgot to ask him how they were going to label raspberries…

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