(July 2, 5:24 p.m.) After six years in development, VersaPrint is starting to stick.

With traceability becoming a huge issue in the produce industry, the timing appears to be right for the labeling machine from Chatsworth, Calif.-based Hurst International LLC.

“Food safety is one of the hottest topics in the industry,” said Ari Lichtenberg, Hurst’s president and chief executive officer. “This is the last missing link in the supply chain for traceback. I have no doubt this is the wave of the future in produce labeling. We’re very excited about it.”

VersaPrint uses labels with pre-printed graphics and a blank space for printing. As produce runs through a packing line, the sizer tells the printer what commodity, variety and size is coming.

In addition to the standard commodity, variety and size information found on a Price Look-Up sticker, VersaPrint databars can include grower-shipper identification, date codes and lot numbers.

“That information can be used to trace it back to a specific area in an orchard or field,” said Lichtenberg, who also said the machine can print 12 labels a second. “It changes the industry as a whole. Now you have accountability.”

The Food and Drug Administration has been investigating Salmonella Saintpaul illnesses linked to fresh tomatoes for more than a month. David Acheson, the FDA’s associate commissioner for foods, has said traceback of bulk produce is much more difficult than probes involving packaged goods because of the lack of a barcode.

“You can put information on a box, but as soon as the product is on the shelf in the produce department you lose traceability,” Lichtenberg said. “Our industry is always criticized for being reactionary instead of proactive. We have an opportunity to change that and provide consumers with safety and confidence.”

Lichtenberg said he expects to have 10 installations in the U.S. by the end of the year. Hurst, which recently added “international” to its name, hopes to move into areas such as Mexico, Chile and Canada next year.

Dinuba, Calif.-based citrus packer S. Surabian & Sons Packing Co. Inc. is wrapping up a test of VersaPrint that started in February.

Plant manager Mike Flora said Surabian will likely purchase a VersaPrint machine before its fall harvest begins. He said the company, which plans to replace an older Hurst labeling model, has been using VersaPrint for oranges, grapefruit and lemons.

“So far it’s been very good,” Flora said. “It’s one of the better machines they’ve put in. It was very good from day one with very few start-up problems.”

In addition to traceability benefits, Flora said the machine will allow the company to reduce labeling inventory and make its operation more efficient. In the past Surabian had to stock three different labels for small-, medium- and large-sized fruit, and it had to change stock each time it ran different sizes on its line.

With VersaPrint, Flora said the company can run different sizes and even different varieties at same time, and the machine will label them correctly based on information it receives from the sizer.

He said the machine also requires little maintenance compared to some labelers that have issues with stickers getting stuck to the machinery.

“It’s light years ahead of other models,” Flora said.

Hurst said packers of apples, avocadoes, citrus, onions, peppers, stone fruit and tomatoes have shown interest in the machine.

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of visitors,” he said. “We’ve had industry leaders from several commodities, and they’re very impressed.”

VersaPrint touts traceability, variety with labels
In addition to the standard commodity, variety and size information found on a Price Look-Up sticker, VersaPrint databars can include grower-shipper identification, date codes and lot numbers.