In a threat to the sticky label, hi-tech lasers could soon be 'tattooing' prices, logos and sell-by dates on to fruit and veg skins, The Grocer can reveal.

A Spanish technology company, which already lasers logos on to melons for French grocery giant Carrefour, is targeting big-name retailers such as Tesco, Asda, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer with its food-engraving technology, and hopes to start distributing laser-labelled citrus fruit in the UK before the end of the year, with other produce to follow in 2011.

Valencia-based Laser Food uses low-intensity lasers to etch information such as country of origin, price look-up (PLU) numbers and retailer names as well as small graphics on to the skins of apples, bananas, citrus fruit and other fresh produce.

Laser engravings were an environmentally friendly alternative to sticky labels because they did not require paper, ink or glue, and provided reliable traceability for individual pieces of fruit and veg in an increasingly competitive market, said chief executive Jaime Sanfelix.

"Not only are there thousands of suppliers for any one product, but the place of origin is different because it is easy to transport goods from anywhere in the world to any destination.

"This makes both the identification of products with excellent quality as well as their management on retail shelves in supermarkets a real ordeal for both the consumer and the sales manager."

A lasered-on use-by date, in particular, would make it easier for retailers to manage perishable products on their shelves and remove individual pieces of produce once they had passed their sell-by date, he added.

"Our aim is that big UK retailers use our technology as a means of differentiation and to control the products they sell."

Laser-labelling technology is already used in other parts of the world, such as Japan and New Zealand, and is about to be rolled out in the US by Sunkist Growers under the name 'natural light labelling'.

Adrian Barlow, chief executive of English Apples & Pears, said he could see potential for laser technology in the UK but warned that accuracy and legibility of the engravings, as well as consumer perception, would be key.

"It would be important to ensure consumers did not think the technology used interfered with the naturalness of the product," he said.

Sanfelix was confident laser technology would be accepted by consumers. Market research carried out by Laser Food showed shoppers preferred laser etchings to traditional labels once they had become familiar with the idea.