By Frank J. Romano September 29, 2005 -- Think of an apple as a coded information delivery system imbued with advanced tracking technology. Produce distributors now employ inkjet or lasers to print or etch fruits and vegetables with their names, identifying numbers, countries of origin, pricing, and other information. RFID chips could be discretely hidden in the navels of navel oranges. The data are literally tattooed onto the outer layer of the skin. The process is government approved and called safe by the industry, and would mean the end of those stubborn little stickers that have to be scraped or peeled off produce. Of course, those stickers are printed and about $300 million will be lost to commercial and packaging printers. Since 9/11, there have been developments for "track and trace" technology to allow protection of the food supply at various stages of production and distribution. Federal regulations will soon require all imported produce to be labeled with the country of origin. Other tracing methods are also being tested, like mini bar codes (not hotel mini bars) that can identify fruits and vegetables at checkout scanners. In Japan, apples have been sold with scannable bar coding that was laser imaged into the wax on their skin. Eventually, RFID chips could be discretely hidden in the navels of navel oranges. Fuzzy imaging is not allowable with trackable 'taters. In 2002, Durand-Wayland, a fruit grower and distributor in Georgia, bought the patent for a process that images the price look-up number and any other consumer or commercial information the retailer or customer might desire, directly into the skin of the fruit or veggie. The process prints/images each piece of fruit, removing only the outer pigment of a Georgia peach to reveal a contrasting layer underneath, and makes the image permanent, readable, and, probably, scannable. Fuzzy imaging is not allowable with trackable 'taters. Sunkist has used printed dyes on oranges and is testing them on lemons, using blueberry-based ink to create greater contrast; although the dye tends to run when exposed to moisture. Blueberry inkjet printing--this could open a new market in fruit-flavored inks. Don't cry over spilled ink. However, there are issues. Do we image every grape or banana in a bunch? Images could be eroded or erased as peaches rub together or uglis are bumped. Imagine Cezanne's still-life painting of tattooed fruit in a fruit bowl. The coded data does serve a purpose. The Produce Marketing Association and the International Federation for Produce Coding have established international standards for the numbers associated with all produce. Four-digit numbers denote conventionally grown produce; five digits beginning with a 9 mean organic; five digits beginning with 8 mean genetically modified. For example, a conventionally grown ear of corn may be marked 4079; an organic one, 94079; and a genetically modified one, 84079. The numbers also communicate the size of the fruit: 3079 indicates a small apple and 3080 a large one. Think of the opportunity to sell advertising space using variable data printing. You could print "So-and-so is the apple of my eye" directly on an apple. Artists will complain, though. Imagine Cezanne's still-life painting of tattooed fruit in a fruit bowl. Most likely, it would not hang at the Louvre--but maybe at the Piggy Wiggly.