A leader in sweet potatoes
SWEDEN AND NORTH CAROLINA — Fifty thousand acres. That’s about how much North Carolina farmland is devoted to sweet potato production, according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.
It turns out all of those acres produce enough sweet potatoes for the state to lead the nation in sweet potato production. It’s also enough to make North Carolina the leading exporter of sweet potatoes.
So it’s not surprising that North Carolina’s sweet spud is part of a test in what could be the future of produce shopping in America.
Right now, this potential future is being explored in Europe. It all starts in a large warehouse on the outskirts of Amsterdam, which houses the firm Eosta—an organic produce supplier.
The perfect produce for 'natural branding'
North Carolina's sweet potatoes are one of Eosta's big imports. Since North Carolina’s sweet spud is becoming quite a hit in Europe, the company is using them to try a new labeling system. It’s called natural branding.
Here's how it works. The potatoes are placed on a conveyor belt that carries them into a large, clear plastic enclosure where, in a flash of light, sparks and smoke, a logo is branded onto the potato.
That’s right, branded.
“It’s actually very simple because we’re not putting any ink on the potato and we’re not burning the potato, we take the pigment out of the outer layer of the fruit,” explains Michael Wilde, the sustainability manager for Eosta. “And the whole reason we are doing this is to avoid using plastic to differentiate the organic from the non-organic produce.”
Wilde admits there is very little difference in appearance behind organic and non-organic produce. So to create a recognizeable difference, the organic produce was packaged in plastic. However, plastic wrapping goes against the belief system of most organic shoppers, who are trying to eat more naturally and stay away from pesticides, herbicides and even packaging.
So Eosta worked with researchers at the University of Valencia along with a company called Laser Food to develop natural branding. It helped to differentiate organic produce and got rid of plastic packaging.
Natural branding's status in the U.S.
Wilde shows us a display of natural branded sweet potatoes in the produce section of an ICA store in Malmo, Sweden. ICA is a large supermarket chain in Europe.
Natural branding has been used in Australia and New Zealand; it was recently approved for use in Europe. But it has not been approved for use in the United States.
The new laser method proves practical
“You might be wondering why we don’t just put a small sticker on the potatoes,” asks Wilde. “It’s because stickers work fine on apples, where the skin is smooth, but because the potato skin is rough and bumpy, stickers fall off most of the time. And while organic shoppers may wonder about that brand on the potato, their hatred of plastic wrapping and stickers is much greater than their questions about natural branding. ”
The laser doesn’t burn the potato skin. It removes the pigment. That means the quality or taste of the potato doesn’t change. Wilde says their consumer research shows customers like the idea.
The laser draws the programmed logo, which in this case says "USA" as well as "I love ICA". The brand also includes the PLU number, which registers the price.
Peter Hagg, the senior category manager for ICA, says he’s found customers favoring fiber based packaging rather than plastic. But the research overwhelmingly shows customers prefer to have no packaging at all. That’s where natural branding comes in.
“It’s important to have the conventional and organic sweet potatoes at the same time in the store and natural branding allows us to do that without stickers that fall off and without plastic,” says Hagg. “You could put the organic potatoes in plastic, but customers wouldn’t be happy and it would be an environmental disaster to have so much plastic on a perfectly good product like this."
More and more, when shoppers overseas buy their North Carolina organic sweet potatoes, they can just look for the unique label-less label.
It's another reason, North Carolina's major agricultural export continues to not only grow in popularity, but also plays a big role in this new, eco-friendly trend in produce.