By JULIA MOSKIN
A pear is just a pear, except when it is also a laser-coded information delivery system with advanced security clearance.
And that is what pears - not to mention organic apples, waxy cucumbers and delicate peaches - are becoming in some supermarkets around the country. A new technology being used by produce distributors employs lasers to tattoo fruits and vegetables with their names, identifying numbers, countries of origin and other information that helps speed distribution. The marks are burned onto the outer layer of the skin and are visible to discerning consumers and befuddled cashiers alike.
The process, government approved and called safe by the industry, may sound sinister. But it was designed with the consumer in mind: laser coding could mean the end of those tiny stubborn stickers that have to be picked, scraped or yanked off produce.
Sticker-removal duty took Jean Lemeaux of Clarksville, Tex., half an hour one day last week.
"I was picking all the little stickers from the Piggly Wiggly off my plums and my avocado pears and my peaches," said Ms. Lemeaux, 76. "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."
"One time," she said, "I got up the next morning and looked in the mirror and there were two of them up in my hair."
The stickerless technology has a broader purpose, too: it is part of the produce industry's latest effort to identify and track, whether for profit or for security, everything Americans eat. Since 9/11, the industry has been encouraged to develop "track and trace" technology to allow protection of the food supply at various stages of distribution. In addition, next year federal regulations will require all imported produce to be labeled with the country of origin.
The tattooed fruit is being sold in stores nationwide as other tracing methods are also being tested, like miniaturized bar coding and cameras with advanced recognition technology that can identify fruits and vegetables at the checkout counter. In Japan, apples have been sold with scannable bar coding etched into the wax on their skin. No one knows exactly when every piece of fruit will be traceable, but the trend is clear: Wal-Mart is already requiring all pallets delivered to its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., to be fitted with radio frequency identification tags, so that they can be tracked by a satellite.
But the carrier of information about fruits and vegetables in America remains the tiny sticker called the P.L.U., for "price look-up." It is unpopular not just with consumers but with the industry itself.
"If they are sticky enough to stay on the fruit through the whole distribution and sales network, they are so sticky that the customer can't get them off," said Michael Hively, general manager of Bland Farms in Reidsville, Ga., the country's largest grower and packer of sweet Vidalia onions.
But apart from the occasional crate of locally grown produce, "most supermarkets no longer accept fruit and vegetables that are not stickered," said Francis Garcia, a vice president of Sinclair Systems in Fresno, Calif., a major manufacturer of the stickers and of the automated systems that blow them onto fruit at centralized packing houses.
To producers, the stickers are messy, expensive and inefficient. "The industry knows that the days of the P.L.U. sticker are numbered and that there will have to be new systems," said Don Harris, vice president for produce at Wild Oats, a national chain of markets, and chairman of the Produce Electronic Identification Board, an industry group. "Customers do not like them, and they don't hold enough information anyway."
In 2002 Durand-Wayland, a fruit grower and distributor in Georgia, bought the patent for a process that etches the price look-up number and any other information the retailer or customer might desire directly into the skin of the fruit. Greg Drouillard, who originally patented laser coding for produce and who now works for Durand-Wayland, said the process permanently tattoos each piece of fruit, removing only the outer pigment to reveal a contrasting layer underneath and make the tattoo readable, even scannable."With the right scanning technology the produce could even be bar-coded with lots of information: where it comes from, who grew it, who picked it, even how many calories it has per serving," said Fred Durand III, president of Durand-Wayland. "You could have a green pepper that was completely covered with coding. Or you could sell advertising space."
Bland Farms, the Vidalia grower, started using the technology this year, shipping laser-coded onions to customers including Wal-Mart and Publix. Sunkist has used it on oranges sold at Stater Brothers markets in California and is testing it on lemons, using blueberry-based ink to create greater contrast.
Henry Affeldt Jr., director of research for Sunkist, said the technology worked the same way lasers work in surgery, cutting and cauterizing almost simultaneously. The skin of fruit that has been etched with a laser is still airtight, Dr. Affeldt said, and the mark is as permanent as a tattoo.
Whether on a sticker or in a tattoo, the numbers serve a purpose. The Produce Marketing Association and the International Federation for Produce Coding have established global standards for the price look-up numbers associated with all produce. Four-digit numbers denote conventionally grown produce; five digits beginning with a 9, organic; five digits beginning with 8, genetically modified. A conventionally grown ear of corn, for example, may be marked 4078; an organic one, 94078; and a genetically modified one, 84078. The numbers can also vary with the size of the fruit: 3069 indicates a small Gravenstein apple, and 3070 a large one.
"When there was only one kind of apple at the supermarket it was easy," said Mr. Harris of Wild Oats. "But now at some markets you will have 12 different kinds of apples. You might even have lots of the same kind of apple: conventional Fuji, organic Fuji, fair trade. You can't expect cashiers to know them all, much less to recognize a cherimoya when they see one."
Ashley Little, who is working this summer as a checkout clerk in Great Barrington, Mass., agrees.
"When I started, I didn't know the difference between a Bartlett and a Bosc pear," she said. "How would I know that? But the customers would get very impatient."
But can laser coding and beautiful fruit bowls coexist?
"Anything that permanently changes the fruit is going to be a hard sell," Mr. Harris said, "especially to buyers of organic produce."
Students of still-life painting might agree. "For literally hundreds of years, artists have immersed themselves in the color and curvature of the perfect peach or apple," said Joseph Rishel, a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art who specializes in Cézanne. "So a tattoo sounds like a desecration."
"But then again," Mr. Rishel said, "there are those who say that Cézanne himself used artificial fruit."
Whatever its advantages, the laser system is far from perfect. The blueberry-based dye Sunkist uses on lemons, for example, tends to run when exposed to moisture.
"Mother Nature isn't interested in making it easy for us to label her, I guess," Mr. Durand said. "If she was, all fruit would be red Delicious apples."