It may never have occurred to you to think much about those stickers you find on some fruits and vegetables you bring home from the grocery store, apart from cursing them when they’re hard to peel off. But those little stickers on your apples and avocados are actually worth stopping to consider.
Here are eight things to know about them:
1. To ensure safety (they are coming into contact with your food, after all), the label adhesives are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and may contain only “substances generally recognized as safe in food.” In fact, the FDA has a published list of approved substances. And while the label paper itself is not “edible,” as has been reported, it’s not a huge deal if you happen to inadvertently eat one when you’re scarfing down that toothsome pear or juicy plum, either.
2. The numbers on them pack a lot of information. Called PLU or Price Look Up codes, they are administered by the International Federation for Produce Standards, a consortium of national produce associations from countries all over the world.
3. PLU codes have been used by grocery stores to identify bulk produce, nuts and herbs by grocery stores since 1990 as a way of facilitating inventory tracking and expediting the checkout process.
4. Each four- or five-digit PLU code provides information about the produce item, including what it is, where and how it was grown (conventionally or organically), and even size. That information can help your checker identify the product and ensure pricing accuracy.
5. The numbers in four-digit PLU codes are randomly assigned by the IFPS (meaning that none of the four numbers individually convey a specific piece of information, but identify the item in the aggregate), but the prefix in 5-digit codes can let you know if your product was organically grown. “The prefix of ‘9’ would be placed in front of the 4-digit conventionally grown code for organic produce,” the IFPS notes.
6. You may also see a prefix of ‘8’ on a five-digit PLU code. That had been reserved for GMO foods, but was never used to convey it and in 2015 was reassigned for use to expand available PLU numbers and does not indicate that a product has been genetically modified. “Unlike the ‘9’,” which indicates that a product is organic, “the leading digit ‘8’ will have no significance,” the IFPS has said.
7. A grocery store’s use of PLU codes is voluntary rather than being mandated of regulated by the government.
8. The database of PLU codes for fresh, loose produce and related products currently includes more than 1,400 items.
Now you know.