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Product traceability just got easier.

VirtualOne, a subsidiary of Plant City, FL-based Wishnatzki Inc., recently filed a provisional patent for its new FireTag technology, a laser product marker that could improve traceability and cut costs at the grower-shipper level.

FireTag does away with the need for paper and ink by marking cases of produce with a barcode or other information via laser. Unlike other laser systems, it is not stationary and can be used at the receiving dock, the cooler, the shipping exit or potentially even the packingline.

The camera-guided laser marking system burns a Produce Traceability Initiative-compliant mark, which includes a Gs1-128 barcode, on a case of product in less than one second.

The technology is green, since it does away with paper and ink, and saves on labor costs since it is fully automated.

Internet-enabled FireTag immediately transmits data to a company's server for storage, thus eliminating human error.

Wishnatzki is in the process of determining the best way to market FireTag, but Chief Financial Officer J.C. Clinard told The Produce News that he expects the product to be available by next spring, "at least six months ahead" of PTI milestones four, five and six, which are due to be implemented by October 2011.

"We're going to show the world the better mousetrap, [but] we're going to figure out if we're the right people to distribute it," Mr. Clinard said. "At this point in time, we're looking at some alternative means of distribution. We're in talks with a couple of companies right now to license the technology, and we are considering distributing it ourselves."

Mr. Clinard said that the company believes leasing may be the best option for getting FireTag to industry users. Since the machine is portable -- it takes up roughly the same space as four standard pallets -- it can be used seasonally. "We think that is the right way to get this to people," Mr. Clinard said. "The machine is mobile. It can be used in, say, Plant City during the strawberry season and then again here for vegetables. Once that season is over, we can ship it up the road and hit another vegetable crop during the summer. One machine can be used by several different users, which makes it pretty appealing."

Since FireTag is used on palletized product, it cannot mark inside stacks. Mr. Clinard said that Wishnatzki is currently working with International Paper to find a solution to that obstacle.

"We think it can be applied to any commodity," Mr. Clinard said. "The one factor that we're looking at right now and working with International Paper on is to eliminate inside stacks. That's something we will have to work on as an industry."

While "we don't have our pricing structure in place, this machine is going to be competitively priced," Mr. Clinard said. "It may not be the lowest-cost option, but it's not going to call in sick, you don't have to provide health insurance for it -- a lot of those things you won't have to worry about any more."

While there is no set timetable for FireTag to come to market, "We are going as quickly as possible right now," Mr. Clinard said. "We've got some hurdles to cross and figure out internally, but it will be available to the market well in advance of the [2011] PTI milestones."

Company President Gary Wishnatzki first challenged his VirtualOne subsidiary to come up with a new way to mark cases in PTI-compliant fashion early last year. Initially he was thinking of paper-and-ink solutions. Systems integrator Bob Pitzer came back with the idea that led to FireTag.

With roots in New York City stretching back to the 1920s, Wishnatzki has a long history of innovation. The company began developing products in-house in the 1980s, starting with data collection software. The VirtualOne LLC was formed five years ago as Wishnatzki's technological development branch. The first product from the subsidiary was 2008's FreshQC, a system involving handheld scanners that traces product information from the picker to the consumer.

Wishnatzki grows, packs and ships about 3 million flats of strawberries and 2 million packages of vegetables each year. For more information on FireTag, go to www.virtualone.net.