Salad Menu - Deciphering Produce Labels

Produce Labels

When I began eating a healthier diet and focusing on what fruits and vegetables were in my diet, I also began to care about how and where those fruits and veggies were grown. Were they local, organic, genetically modified, or were they conventionally grown, likely using pesticides, and shipped from thousands of miles away? This all became important to me.

That’s when I started noticing those little stickers and tags on my fruits and vegetables. It took me a while to figure out that they provided a guide to answering at least some of these questions. Because I wasn’t entirely sure what they indicated, I decided to look into it. Here’s what I learned from reviewing articles and posts on Snopes, Wikipedia, and the source itself, the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS).

What’s the number on the sticker or tag?

The stickers include either a four- or five-digit number—the “price lookup”, or “PLU” code. If you’ve ever scanned your own groceries at the store and were purchasing fruits and vegetables, the scanner often asks you to enter this code so that it can charge you for the correct produce item. You’ve also seen cashiers entering the numbers when you go through the standard checkout line. Retail grocery stores also use the code to manage their inventory. 

What do those numbers mean?

The PLU codes with four-digit numeric codes indicate two things: currently, a four-digit PLU code indicates that the produce is conventionally grown. In other words, it may have been grown using pesticides, though in some cases this can mean that the grower did not get the produce certified as organic even if it was grown according to organic practices. Sometimes these four-digit codes for conventionally grown produce may have a zero (0) in front of the four-digit code. 

The code also identifies the type of produce. For example, 3000 is the PLU code for an alkmene apple, 3061 is the code for a beefsteak tomato, and 4329 is the code for the honeydew melon. You’ll see that these four-digit identifiers start with a number 3 or a 4. To make it a bit confusing, a range of some PLU code numbers has been set aside for the grocery store to assign as it sees fit—perhaps because it works better with their inventory system. 

For fun, try looking up some produce searching the IFPS database with their online search tool

How can I tell if the produce is organic?

Many people solely use the label on the produce bin or display case to determine if produce is organic. That method can be problematic if a piece of produce is accidentally stocked or replaced in the wrong location. 

The PLU code plus the bin or display case label is your best bet for identifying organic produce; if it has a 9 in front of the four-digit code, then it means that in all likelihood, the produce is organic. For example, the organic version of a honeydew melon would be 94329. Back that up by looking at the bin label, too, and you can pretty definitively identify organic produce.

Does the PLU code tell me if the produce is genetically modified?

I said “in all likelihood” when discussing identifying organic produce because the PLU code system is an entirely voluntary system run by the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS). The produce may have been tagged by either your grocery store or the supplier to that store, but neither of them is beholden by law to use the system. While most stores and growers use the system, not all choose to do so. 

I give you all that background because this lack of use was what happened when the number 8 was made available for PLU codes for genetically modified produce. Unfortunately, retailers and suppliers rarely used it, so it has never served as a reliable way to find out if a food is genetically modified. In fact, according to the IFPS home page, the number 8 is being made available for use in front of the four-digit codes for conventionally grown produce. 

Here’s a guide that I found if you do want to avoid genetically engineered foods, or as they are often called, genetically engineered organisms (GMOs): the Non-GMO Shopping Guide

What else is on the sticker with the PLU code?

Stickers tend to include a couple of other things: the supplier’s name, where the produce was grown, and oddly enough, they can include advertisements or offers. If you want to purchase food grown locally or just in the U.S., then you can easily do that by looking at the sticker.

For more information about those stickers, this food hacks article on WonderHowTo provided some good insights into what the stickers are actually made of, what’s in the adhesive used to make them stick to the produce, and tricks for removing stickers from your produce. Note that the article is inaccurate about the use of the number 8 to identify genetically modified foods! 

Produce stickers: A pretty good way to know what you’re eating

While the PLU code is not 100 percent fail proof in telling you the pedigree of your produce, it’s pretty accurate most of the time. What do you know about PLU codes and produce stickers? Do you have a trick for removing them, too?