Here’s a labeling system that you’ve likely never heard of before. You know those annoying stickers found on all your favorite fruit and vegetables? Maybe you’ve bitten into a sticker or chopped it up into a fruit salad. But those pesky stickers actually have a purpose. Let’s take a closer look at what they mean.
Know the Code
Produce stickers contain Price Look Up (PLU) codes that serve a larger purpose. They’ve been used since 1990 to help cashiers identify bulk produce. For example, a 4-digit code that starts with the numbers 3 or 4 mean that the fruit was cultivated on a factory farm that sprayed its crops with synthetic pesticides. A 5-digit code starting with the number 9 means that the fruit was grown in a traditional way and was either cultivated organically or without the use of pesticides or fertilizers. And a product with a 5-digit code starting with the number 8 means that the fruit is genetically modified.
It’s An Imperfect System
While it’s neat to know what these PLU codes actually mean, for savvy shoppers, PLUs should be your last line of defense. Here’s why: The PLU numbers are actually meant to tell the cashier whether an apple is a conventional Fuji or organic Honey Crisp, so they know what to charge you at the check out. The numbers are actually organized by the Produce Marketing Association and aren’t directed at consumers. Rather, it’s a voluntary system that allows retailers to have an idea what they should charge. For example, charging more for a piece of organic fruit and less for genetically modified fruit. And while theoretically, the number 8 is meant to signify genetically modified, you’ll rarely see it on PLUs because again, it’s voluntary and rarely used, if ever.
Look Beyond the PLU
If you want to ensure your produce is organic, look beyond the PLU for an organic certification. And don’t trust that PLUs will help you to avoid genetically modified foods because remember this system is voluntary and is not controlled by a governing body (and isn’t 100% transparent). Big seed and agriculture corporations like Monsanto have invested millions of dollars in campaigns to stop mandatory labeling of GMO products, even though surveys have showed the majority of Americans want GMOs labeled. The same companies even backed a federal law called The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, nicknamed the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act, that blocks states from enacting labeling laws at all. So why would they be honest on a PLU code? Forget it.
Know Other Labeling Systems
In a pinch, looking at the PLU code can give you some idea of the fruit or vegetable’s origin. But it’s best to use other sources at your finger tips. Look for a separate organic label or sign before buying fruit, or ask for the produce manager where the produce came from, how it was grown and if it came from GMO seed. This is especially important when it comes to fruits that are laden with pesticides like apples, which year after year top the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of the most heavily sprayed fruits and vegetables. Other big offenders include peaches, nectarines, strawberries, and grapes.
If you want to avoid genetically modified fruit and vegetables, choose organic. To be certified organic, foods cannot be grown with genetically modified seeds. Still, most fruits and frozen fruits are not genetically modified except the Hawaiian papaya. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently approved a genetically modified non-browning apple, but it’s not yet widely available. If you’re dealing with high risk GMO produce like corn, edamame (soy beans), papaya, zucchini, or yellow summer squash, you’ll want to ensure that you choose organic or that it’s specifically labeled as non-GMO, which is common at health food stores like Whole Foods.
Produce PLUs are a cool trick to know, especially considering that so few people are familiar with this labeling system. But in the end, those sticky little labels aren’t actually directed at you. They’re there to help cashiers identify what type of produce you’ve chosen so they know how much to charge you. The fact that the labeling system is voluntary, means that producers could opt out of telling the whole truth. However, the smart consumer will see beyond PLU stickers to know how their food was grown. From choosing organic to non-GMO, know your food labeling system from top to bottom so you can enjoy the health benefits of that Fuji apple without a side of pesticides.