From plastic sticker to laser printer

Researchers at the Kansas State University Olathe campus are looking at replacing the plastic sticker on fresh produce with a laser-printed QR code onto the food itself. This would reduce environmental waste and improve food traceability.

Scientists in the Postharvest Physiology and Food Safety labs are testing the quality and safety of using a laser-based engraving technology to “print” on apples, cucumbers and green bell peppers.

In a matter of seconds, the laser engraves a QR code on the surface of the food. Tests are revealing if this exposed surface area affects produce freshness or is more susceptible to microbial contamination.

“The first step was determining whether a laser that’s made for metal, plastic and wood engraving could also work on fruit and vegetable surfaces,” said Manreet Bhullar, research assistant professor of horticulture and natural resources. “We then need to know whether the QR code stays readable until the end of the product’s shelf life and does not increase the chances of microbial contamination on the etched surface. If we can meet those criteria, we can move forward with the technology on commodities that make sense for it.”

While grocers use price look-up, or PLU, stickers primarily for inventory purposes, the QR codes also could better track produce throughout the food supply chain. The potential to quickly trace contaminated produce, to reduce foodborne outbreaks, and to lower large-scale disposal of uncontaminated produce during an outbreak mark critical advantages
to using QR codes while protecting public health and reducing food loss, researchers said.

Sensory and Consumer Research Center researchers are evaluating the economic feasibility of the technology by looking at consumer acceptability of QR-labeled food.

“We can develop a method that’s environmentally sustainable, reduces food loss and addresses the French ban on noncompostable stickers — impacting millions of dollars in U.S. exports,” said Eleni Pliakoni, associate professor of urban food production and postharvest handling. “But if consumers don’t want to buy food with a printed QR code on it, then it’s not viable technology.”

The K-State Global Food Systems seed grant program is funding the project.