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Decoding the Stickers on Fruit and Vegetables

What do the numbers mean?
What do the numbers mean?

When I finished writing the article about organic versus conventional foods, I thought a nice follow-up would be to share how you can to quickly identify between the different types of fruit and vegetables. After all, the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS) put together a wonderful 21-page guide on how to easily distinguish between conventionally grown, organic and genetically modified fruits and vegetables. Here's the information directly from the IFPS document called, "Produce PLU (Price Lookup) A Users' Guide - 2006."

Question: How is organically grown produce coded on a PLU label?
Answer: The number "9" is added to the front of the regular four-digit PLU code. (For example, an organically grown banana would be 94011.)

Question: How is genetically engineered produce coded on a PLU label?
Answer: The number "8" is added in front of the regular four-digit PLU code. (For example, a genetically engineered vine ripe tomato would be 84805.)

That seems relatively simple. If it's got a "9" in front and it's a five-digit label, it's organic. If it's got an "8" in front and it's a five-digit label, it's genetically modified.

For all other produce, if it has a "0" in front, or it's just a four-digit number, it's conventionally grown.

What could be easier? When I shop for food, I would make my first choice anything with a "9" in front (because it's organic) and then I would settle for produce that has a "0" or a four-digit code because that's conventionally grown. Anything that has an "8" in the front I would ignore because it's been genetically modified.

(As one of my researchers said, "Nine is fine, eight I hate!")

Not so fast. I then sent out a couple of my researchers to get some samples of fruit or vegetables with the various numbers on them. Ideally, I wanted something that came in all three versions, organic, genetically modified and conventional. I wanted to compare them in appearance, taste and price. What they found out was a bit shocking.

After checking every single fruit and vegetable in four major supermarkets, they couldn't locate a single item that had the mysterious "8" or genetically modified number in the front. You read that right. After checking the labels of literally hundreds of produce items, they couldn't locate one fruit or vegetable that labeled itself genetically modified. Turns out, the guidelines for how produce is labeled are entirely voluntary.

You see, back in 2006 when the International Federation for Produce Standards put together their little guide on how to properly identify the various numbers on produce, they figured food stores would want to track things like how well genetically modified foods sold compared to conventional or organic. It was wishful thinking.

Consumers don't really trust genetically modified foods. When asked, most Americans say they would avoid buying genetically modified foods if they were labeled as such. The fruit and vegetable companies aren't stupid. Rather than apply for the controversial "8" code and risk hurting sales, the majority of companies simply got conventional codes for their genetically modified fare.

Remember, it's a voluntary system. Fortunately, the regulations for the word "organic" are much more strict. Here's a reminder of what the United States government says:

"Made With Organic" means the product must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. "Organic" must be 95% or greater organically produced ingredients. "100% Organic" is the only one of the three that must be made with nothing but organic ingredients.

Instead of trying to decipher the "voluntary" system of price lookup codes, just check out the label. Look for "organic" if you want to avoid genetically modified foods and are looking for items that were grown with fewer pesticides. If you can't afford "organic", choose from what's available. Almost any produce is going to be better for you than the majority of canned, boxed or pre-packaged food that's available in the rest of the supermarket.

Obesity and the lack of whole fruit and vegetables in the American diet is a far greater concern than the potential risks of genetically modified produce. Eat more vegetables!

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