Tim Pearson would love to do away with the stickers his firm uses on their fruit to provide retailers with product information. He now has an option with new laser technology adapted for produce that could be a revolutionary change in the way it is marked for retail.
Pearson wears many hats at Southern Oregon Sales, an Oregon pear packing house, as packing house manager, quality control supervisor, and field representative, and describes himself as a “show me” kind of guy.
When he read about technology eliminating labels bearing “price look up” (PLU) codes on produce last year in a trade publication, he said, “It sounded too good to be true.
For anyone who has dealt with sticker machines, we’re all looking for an alternative.” He called the manufacturer in the ad to ask about a demonstration, and soon had laser coding equipment in the packing house to test and evaluate.
Adhesive-backed stickers have been a standard in the produce industry for two decades, however, the labels can adhere to machinery and can fall off the fruit during shipping and handling.
Pears are particularly difficult to label, Pearson explained. “When we’re packing them (pears), they’re cold, wet, and have a rough skin. We’re trying to adhere a sticker to it—it’s crazy.” He must pay someone to run the label machines, lease the label equipment, buy an inventory of stickers to match each PLU code used, and then spend six months after the season is over cleaning labels off packing lines, floors, and walls.
A packing house without stickers? “What a wonderful world that world would be,” Pearson answered, adding that laser technology doesn’t require an operator to be there every day or require an inventory of different PLU codes. He estimates that the company pays $5,000 each season just to have someone operate the sticker equipment. He anticipates that the cost of the laser equipment will pay for itself within five years.
Ready for pears
After a year of experimenting on different varieties of pears with the patented laser process called Natural Light Labeling and collecting data from labeled pears in storage, Pearson is ready this season to use the technology on a limited basis on their Bosc pear variety.
Southern Oregon Sales, a grower cooperative in Medford, packs 12 varieties of pears for 35 producer members. Pears are packed as quickly as possible after harvest—the packing house doesn’t presize or pack to order. Pearson experimented with the technology last season in the evenings on small batches of pears, trying the laser device installed over one lane on the different varieties that they pack.
Some samples were held for observation. Additionally, samples were sent to Dr. David Sugar at Oregon State University’s Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Medford. Sugar held the samples in storage for six to eight months and found there was no more rot on the area that had been labeled by the laser than anywhere else, Pearson explained. A few boxes of pears with the laser label were sent last year to some of their major buyers, such as Safeway and Albertsons.
From his experience last season, Pearson learned that each pear variety needs its own setting or adjustment programmed into the computer before the technology can work properly. The amount of russetting, difference in skin texture, and shape of each variety must be accounted for.
“Every variety of pear has its own set of issues to deal with,” he noted. He is confident with the settings they’ve developed for Bosc pears, but he will continue to fine-tune the adjustments for the other 11 pear varieties. Test shipments of Bosc pears will be sent on a limited basis to major retail customers in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. “I’ll be sending a few pallets this year versus sending a few boxes,” he said.
“I’m confident that the technique is there. It’s just a matter of finding the setting for each variety.” In the future, Pearson can foresee the industry using both sticker and laser equipment to label fruit. “But I sure know what my preference will be.” m