In recent years the fresh produce media published articles showing that the Australian fresh fruit and vegetables growers are aggressively trying to set up a market in (for them) nearby China. If you follow the worldwide food market and its industry in the professional media you also have read about the various scandals in China with among others imported baby formula. These scandals, in which among others Australian and New Zealand companies were involved, created of course a harsh environment for the export of Australian fresh produce to China.
With the Chinese consumer each time more affluent to enlighten his daily life, imported high-quality fresh produce is in high demand, despite the consumer’s key concern about food safety and authenticity of the product he wishes to buy. And he isn’t the only Asian consumer, not even are the Asian consumers the only ones in the world concerned about food safety and authenticity.
It’s no secret that with huge profits at stake, that increasingly sophisticated food criminals are exploiting the global consumer demand. Everywhere in the world where a high-end consumer is available and consequently high-quality and luxury goods are marketed, often imported, the chance of adulterated products in the market is increasing, obliging the consumer to check whether he is putting money on the table for a genuine product or a fake, an adulterated one or a recalled one.
But it isn’t only the food criminal, but also the regular food industry, which is (too) often involved in scandals and about which the internet is keeping the contemporary consumer up-to-date. It’s obvious that the modern consumer wants to have a tool to check his purchases. In this time of 24/7 connectivity he/she wants to know more. With sensitive items, such as slave-labour, fair trade, food safety, environment, ethical values, etc., on his agenda, he wants to trace the product back to its origin.
You often read the word “serialisation” in relation to packaging. And indeed the last decades the pharmaceutical industry mainly has been discussing and implementing serialisation techniques. There are many definitions of serialisation running around, but in our context we use the following:
Serialization is the process of converting the information of an object (packaging, product) into a binary or textual form (unique sequences of letters and/or numbers) to persist into storage medium or transported over a network. It involves the conversion into a stream of bytes, which is then written to data stream. The reverse process of converting stream of bits into an object is called deserialization.
In other words each and every product (packaged or not-packaged) receives an individual and unique number or code. Mass serialisation is seen as incredibly important, because it is capable of accomplishing three important goals.
1. Authentication. About this for the consumer most important feature more in a minute.
2. Data collection. The manufacturer or producer knows exactly how long it takes for his product to go from production to the end-consumer and he knows exactly where the end-consumer is.
3. Marketing. This is the item the contemporary consumer irritates most. After scanning the code to authenticate the originality of the product, the consumer is victim to the unsolicited information on related products, often accompanied with an aggressive approach to convince him to buy what he didn’t ask for.
As already said the only important feature for the consumer is the option to check whether the product he plans to buy is genuine or fake or is in some other way “damaged good”. The other two features are only beneficial to the manufacturer.
The consequence of mass serialisation, of course, is the necessity of a unique identity on every single product. That’s alright when it’s a packaged product, but quite a problem when we talk about fresh produce, which in almost all cases is marketed individually and unpackaged. It’s the pride of a supermarket to allow the consumer to make his own selection when choosing the vegetables and fruits he wants.
So, let’s go back to the Australian fresh produce growers, who want to export their products to China and for that reason want to instil a sense of confidence, as the Chinese consumers are growing increasingly conscious about food safety and the origin of their fresh produce.
Australia and China
To this end the Australian application developer Authenticateit developed a new traceability system that can be downloaded to smartphones. The free application allows consumers to check product authenticity, safety and recall status. Chinese consumers look favourably on products that can be verified through traceability systems as 100% genuine.
Authenticateit’s application uses advanced serialisation and track and tractability technology to help consumers discern whether a certain product matches with how it is being marketed. At the same time it provides a tool for suppliers to monitor how their brand is being managed and protected in the Chinese market. The application also allows marketers to tap into Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo to help increase awareness about the growing counterfeit trade.
Unfortunately the Australian apps developer doesn’t indicate how unpackaged fresh produce should be individually marked with a unique serial code other than with a label, which can be quite a problem to stick to the naked product.
At the end of this article I will describe the perfect solution for serial coding fresh produce, but let’s first go to the USA and see what Scott Farms is doing with its sweet potatoes.
North Carolina sweet potato packer Scott Farms implemented software that realises unique codes at item level down to a single, shrink-wrapped, branded potato that consumers cook in the microwave. These codes give not only Scott Farms but also the consumer complete track and trace visibility of the sweet potatoes from farm to warehouse to packaging to kitchen table.
It’s clear that supply chain visibility and improved operational efficiency was the primary goal for Scott Farms, but this solution also creates a multitude of options to engage consumers. Consumers only have to text, snap, or scan the unique serialised code on the item, and when they do, the information is then sent to the platform at Scott so that the company knows who bought the product, where, and when. In return the consumer can learn all about the origin of the sweet potato he wishes to buy.
Tracking and tracing high volume products is a challenging undertaking. The vast number of products being uniquely protected and the sheer number of simultaneous code generations, code authentications, and tracking and tracing requests, make it less than trivial.
Conventional mass-serialisation technologies compare and reference a number on a product item with what is stored in a database system. When reaching a high number of codes, such systems might suffer performance drops, when trying to ensure non-collision of numbers and keeping updated the indexes in the databases.
Scott Farms says it uses Kezzler serialisation software, which it says is algorithmic in nature as opposed to being one that relies on a data base. The Kezzler codes are constructed and self-contained on demand by the high performance encryption engine. The codes do not carry or contain any product or logistical information; they simply serve as a transient link dynamic information. The advantage gained from this approach is that because the data is not stored in a data base, it offers (according to Kezzler) the highest possible security, extreme scalability, unbeaten performance and no latency issues will get in the way of data retrieval.
This kind of grower-to-consumer interaction in fresh produce is viewed as a breakthrough as, with few exceptions, individually packaged fruit or vegetables weren’t printed with a unique serial code.
There is the problem. Neither Authenticateit in Australia, nor Scott Farms/Kezzler in the USA is marking the fresh produce unpackaged. In both cases they assume the products are packaged, individually as it might be. But that’s not what you see in the fresh produce world. The fruit or vegetables might be packaged in a so called second packaging or shipping container, but in that container the produce is displayed naked/unpackaged and the consumer will make his choice from that container and want to check the origin and authenticity of the individual, unpackaged one he has in his hands and wants to buy. That the shipping box might be marked is of no importance to him, he wants to see the authenticity of the individual one.
Applying the unique code on fresh produce through labelling isn’t a simple matter due to its sizes and variety in shapes. Furthermore much of the fresh produce that arrives from around the globe onto retail shelves has been washed and waxed, leaving the produce not with the most label friendly surface. But there are perfect solutions for marking unpackaged fresh produce with (among others) a serial code for authenticity.
Laser labelling consists of using lasers to remove a minuscule area of pigment from fruit surfaces and apply a safe contrasting liquid to label the product. It can be used on almost any fruit or vegetable, and uses all natural materials.
The patented technology, developed by Laser Food, based in the citrus-producing region of Valencia/Spain, in partnership with the University of Valencia, has according to insiders the potential to become a standard in labelling of fruit and vegetables.
The technology comprises two elements: a laser that removes a minuscule area of the fruit surface without affecting the interior in any way, and the application of a contrasting (food safe) liquid that enables the brand name or code to be seen.
Laser labelling marks the fruit permanently without damaging it and is safe against bacterial contamination, as it doesn’t go through the skin and has no impact on the shelf life. Because it uses no paper, plastic or any other material used in traditional labelling, the process can cut down on costs and eliminate waste. The cost of marking 1,000 pieces of fruit is said to be about 0.90 Euro (1.00 USD).
It is the perfect solution to mark unpackaged fruit and vegetables with an authentication code.