While they seem useless, the stickers/ labels attached to fruits and veggies have an important function which goes way beyond allowing scanning the price at checkout.
The PLU code is a little round sticker with numbers, typically found on produce items like bananas, oranges, and apples. These codes are administered by the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS) and tell how the fruit was grown. Specifically, reading this code helps determine the origin of the food product, such as whether it was genetically modified, organically grown, or produced with fungicides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers.
If you are interested in learning how to use PLU codes to see how your produce was created, read on. Here are the basics:
- If the 5-digit code starts with the number “3”, it indicates that the produce was electronically pasteurized (irradiated).
- If the PLU code has only 4 digits and they begin with a “3” or “4”, it means that the product was traditionally grown with the use or pesticides. Simply put, any four-digit code stands for non-qualified (conventionally grown) product. For instance, the PLU code 4318 is used for small cantaloupes or muskmelons which are traditionally grown in the Eastern United States. Another example is the PLU code 4131, which is typically assigned to a traditionally grown apple while all bananas are labeled with the code of 4011.
- Any PLU code beginning with the number “6” stands for pre-cut fruits and veggies.
- If the 5-digit code starts with an “8”, it means that the food product is a genetically modified fruit or veggie. Genetically modified fruits and veggies trump being organic, so there is no chance you eat organic produce that are grown from genetically modified seeds. For instance, the PLU code for genetically engineered banana would be 84011.
- If the 5-digit PLU code starts with a “9”, the produce isn’t genetically modified but was grown organically. Hence, the PLU code for an organic banana would be 94011.
- If you come across a food item without any sticker, this is quite suspicious. Namely, imported fruits and veggies are always labeled, so absence of sticker indicates that there is something suspicious going on and that the sticker has been removed for some dishonest reason.
It is worth mentioning that the PLU system is based on business needs and it isn’t regulated by some governmental agency. Labeling fruits and veggies with PLU codes is required by the retail industry to help with point-of-sale identification, meaning to help suppliers and retailers in sorting and pricing the produce.
Given that the PLU system wasn’t created for the benefits of consumers, those concerned about the origin of the food they eat should look for additional source of information. Therefore, those looking for organic produce should look for items labeled as “Organic”, those who want to avoid GMO produce should only purchase items labeled as “100% organic” or “GMO-free”, and so on.