PLU Codes Are More Than Just Numbers

Have you ever wondered what all those numbers on the produce stickers actually mean? I had always thought they were just codes for the grocer to connect to the database so they could ring it up. They are that, true, but they're even more that that.  Recently a friend told me that if we know which number means what, then we can avoid marketing mishaps from the grocer end.

I have always questioned the validity of statements about whether something labeled as "organic" truly is. And in truth, I suppose the sticker isn't much different, but it could be used as a tool in the arsenal of conscientious choice.

The PLU Code User's Guide explains the PLU system in its entirety, but you can quickly look up any number on the PLU Codes Website.

The root PLU is 4 digits. This denotes the conventional produce base number, but they can all be considered to have 5 digits:

  • 0 Applies to all non-qualified produce and is generally presented without the leading"zero" digit.(i.e. 4-digits)
  • 8 Genetically modified
  • 9 Organic

So for example, the code for banana is 4011. If the code is 94011, it is an organic banana. If the code is 84011, it is a genetically modified banana.

A word of warning for the wise: genetically modified produce is not required to be labeled, and that includes the PLUs. The best we can do, as has been stated time and time again, is purchase organic, by which laws already exclude GMO contamination, lest organic certification be revoked. So if you're concerned about GMOs, you can't trust a label to tell you it it is there; it can only tell you if it is not there.

Luckily, so far only major crops have turned to  GMO technology, and typically those crops are used in highly processed foods. But some potatoes, corn and soy (edemame) are potential candidates in the produce aisle.

Not every single produce item needs to be an organic choice, either. Many crops grow perfectly fine with very little pesticide or herbicide applications, if any at all. If given a choice on the "Dirty Dozen" it is in everybody's best interest to choose organic.

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It is hoped that eventually all produce will be labeled, either by PLU or by some other means to give us the rightful information a consumer deserves. Until then, we must depend on third party organizations to certify organic or join a CSA that focuses on soil and water preservation. In any case, knowing that a leading 9 PLU code is organic can help you make a more informed choice in a situation where accountability is difficult to decipher at best.

Photo credit: By Bludgeoner86