Let’s just start tattooing our fruit

Annoying stickers may not be society’s most fearsome concern, but consumers are increasingly worried about wasteful packaging and traceability.

A particular subsection of Twitter rejoiced today, at the intersection of “people who hate minor inconveniences” and “people who love the absurd.” The source of their joy is a novel concept, discussed Wednesday on ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): replacing those ubiquitous, annoying produce stickers with…tattoos.

Fair warning: This innovation is pragmatic more than aesthetic (i.e., don’t expect sweet tribal tats ringing your tomato). In essence, it’s a technology, already in use in some parts of the world, wherein lasers etch the name of the grower—and potentially other identifiers like bar codes or organic labels—directly onto the surface of the fruit or vegetable. Like a Del Monte sticker or a cattle brand, it’s a way to easily identify sourcing—without wasteful labels or packaging.

The technology in question has existed for well over a decade; it scored its patent back in 1997. A University of Florida scientist named Greg Douillard invented a machine that “etches” labels on the outermost surface of the fruit, using carbon dioxide to remove pigmentation. It’s harmless and low-impact, and the New York Times trumpeted in 2005 “Tattooed Fruit Is on Its Way.”

“I was picking all the little stickers from the Piggly Wiggly off my plums and my avocado, pears and my peaches,” a woman named Jean Lemeaux, 76, told the Times. “Then I had to make fruit salad out of the ones that got hurt when I took the stickers off, and then I had to wash the glue off the other ones before I put them in the fruit bowl.” Lemeaux went on to complain how the stickers get in her hair.

“Imagine that you can code each piece of produce so it can easily be traced back to its origin. Think of how helpful that could be when there is a food safety issue.”

Annoying stickers may not be society’s most fearsome concern right now, but at a moment when consumers are increasingly concerned with wasteful packaging and traceability, tattoos seem a compelling alternative. “Imagine that you can code each piece of produce so it can easily be traced back to its origin,” says Douillard. “Think of how helpful that could be when there is a food safety issue.”

This technology has gained regulatory approval in New Zealand, Sweden and India, to name a few, but is only FDA-approved for citrus here in the States. Douillard says the companies that produce fruit and vegetable stickers (Big Label?) have doggedly opposed his technology from the word go; the citrus approval only came after years of legal battle.

“Anything [the label industry] could think of to accuse me of, they would. They said there was … bacteria getting into fruit, and all other kinds of malarkey,” says Douillard. “But I think now we have proof from these other countries coming in, showing how safe it is.”

We may start seeing more tattooed citrus in supermarkets, if perception issues can be overcome. Phil Lempert, a longtime supermarket industry consultant, says American consumers can be notoriously averse to packaging innovation. “Look at foods in a tube,” he says. “That’s been popular in Europe for years, and it’s sustainable and smart. We’re so backwards when it comes to packaging here.”

Lempert believes it will just take time and exposure for people to get used to tattooed produce. Much like the now-ubiquitous fruit sticker (see this TED speaker who really, really hated the sticker’s adoption), packaging disruption needs to be gently introduced to a wary public. “I think the next generation, more environmentally conscious and anti-packaging, will be more ready for [fruit tattoos],” says Lempert.

Douillard is working on getting FDA approval for tattooing melons, avocado, bananas, pomegranates, kiwi, and coconuts. For now he’s only going for items with disposable skin, even though he says it’s also harmless on, say, tomatoes and apples. Gaining those approvals is a long and costly process, Douillard says, so finding an investor is his current mission. He claims it should not be a hard sell.

“Big produce companies are spending a quarter million dollars each year on sticky labels that end up in the trash,” Douillard says. He says if you buy one of his machines (retail of $184,000), however, it lasts for at least 10 years and never requires additional supply costs. “You can kind of see why the label companies don’t like this.”

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Jesse Hirsch is The Counter's managing editor. Before he joined the team, he was an investigative food editor at Consumer Reports. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, VICE, Eater, and The Guardian.