VirtualOne, Plant City, Fla., expects to have a fully working model of FireTag, its camera-guided laser marking system by the end of January, and president and chief executive officer Gary Wishnatzki said he hopes the system will be in production by mid-March.

“We have some very large companies interested in this solution,” Wishnatzki said during a Dec. 16 interview. “They see it as a viable solution for field-packed commodities like lettuce and celery. It can mark boxes without unpalletizing them, and that’s huge.”

Wishnatzki said FireTag was designed to help companies comply with Produce Traceability Initiative requirements for case-level traceability. He said the laser can burn a PTI-compliant mark on a box in less than one second.

It also allows field-packed product to be marked in a central location, eliminating the need for printers in fields. The environmentally-friendly, patent-pending solution, which requires little labor, also eliminates the need for paper, labels and ink, Wishnatzki said.

Wishnatzki said VirtualOne, which is a subsidiary of Wishnatzki Inc., is testing the marking system on corrugated cartons as well as wire-bound crates.

Meanwhile, Wishnatzki said VirtualOne has developed a packing line version of its FreshQC traceability product, which traces field-packed product back to the picker, location, date and time.

“It gives us an added level of traceability,” Wishnatzki said of the new version of the product.

He said Wishnatzki Farms has used the new Fresh QC product on blueberries and grape tomatoes and added that it could be used for any product that is packed on a line in a clamshell.

The original Fresh QC system — which integrates data collection, traceback and payroll capabilities — was designed for field-packed product. Wishnatzki Farms is in its third season of using the system for strawberries.

Fresh QC provides users with item-level data, including grower, field, picker, time of harvest, variety, planting date and nursery source.

“We know everything about the origin of that box, so we can replicate our successes and correct failures,” Wishnatzki said.

Wishnatzki said the traceability aspect of the system makes the company PTI compliant, but it also works as a quality assurance tool. In the two years before implementing Fresh QC in its strawberry fields, Wishnatzki had rejection rates of 3.5% and 5%, respectively. Wishnatzki said those rates now are less than 1%.

“Our system pays for itself,” he said. “I’d do this no matter what. If the PTI went away tomorrow, Fresh QC would still make sense for our business.”

Wishnatzki Farms places stickers on its clamshells that encourage consumers to provide feedback online. Wishnatzki said the company receives more than 2,000 emails from consumers each year about the quality of its strawberries.

“It tells us who is doing a good job,” he said.

“Pickers know their name is tied to that package all the way to the consumer. It improves our rejection rate, and it improves customer satisfaction. It’s win-win for us. Our pickers are buying in because they know their name is associated with that box.”

While Fresh QC’s products can help growers, shippers and packers meet PTI requirements, Wishnatzki realizes some companies are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“I don’t think a lot of people are going to buy traceability solutions until the PTI gets crystallized,” he said. “That still has to be hashed out. There’s a lot of companies that aren’t investing and won’t until they know what the requirements are going to be.”