PLU Codes Don’t Indicate GMO Produce

A while back, I stumbled onto a little known fact. The PLU codes on produce at your supermarket actually mean things (besides what kind of fruit or veggie it is)! For example, organic produce has a 5-digit PLU code beginning with the number 9. Conventionally raised produce has a 4-digit PLU code, and (wonder of wonders!) genetically modified produce has a 5-digit PLU code beginning with the number 8.

When getting fresh vegetables from local farmers, PLU codes don’t seem all that important. After all, I can just ask the farmer about his growing practices and where he gets his seed from. So, I tucked away this handy bit of knowledge about supermarket produce, thinking I might use it some day.

Then this week, I read an eye-opening article by Jeffrey Smith (the founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology). He says PLU codes don’t reveal the GMO origins of produce. Why? Because they’re optional.

From the Huffington Post article:

Those that run PLU-universe figured that someday some retailer might want to distinguish between a GMO and a non-GMO for price or inventory purposes. So they created a convention of 5 digits starting with an 8, just in case it catches on. But it hasn’t. No one uses that number 8 as far as we can tell. And why would they? Most Americans say they would avoid GMOs if they were labeled.

Some seed companies don’t even want gardeners to know which seed is genetically modified. One company that sells zucchini seeds outfitted with virus genes announced that they would refuse to sell seed packets in Vermont, since the state legislature requires GM seeds to be labeled.

So, there you have it. PLU codes don’t tell you squat about whether produce is genetically modified. Fortunately, the kinds of GMO produce in the U.S. are quite limited: Hawaiian papayas, some zucchini and yellow squash, and corn on the cob. If you don’t buy these organic, they *may* be genetically-modified (or they may not be). If that uncertainty bothers you, stick to the organic label.

(photo by pswansen)

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While I adore hats & happy skirts, nothing inspires me quite like geeking out over nutrition & sustainable agriculture.
My name is Kristen Michaelis, author extraordinaire and rebel with a cause.

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Kristen,
    This was especially frustrating when I received the email from Jeffrey Smith because I had written about the PLU codes in my Real Food Ingredient Guide! I actually did quite a bit of research on this before adding it and thought I had it straight. I fixed my pdf guide as soon as I got the word, but there are many already sold that I can’t change. It was an honest mistake, but it still makes me crazy. Thankfully, like you said, the PLU codes DO still tell if a food is organic or not, but so does the sign that is usually nearby. All this is even more reason to buy your food locally from farmers you trust!
    Kelly
    .-= Kelly the Kitchen Kop´s last blog post …Sign Up For a Chance to WIN! =-.

  2. Debbie says

    Wow, thanks. I wasn’t aware that there was only a limited amount of veggies that could be GMO. Good to know. I always try to buy organic squash, but now I will definitely do it.

    Thank you!

    • says

      Debbie — It’s safer to say that these are the only ones on the market *right now*, not that they’re the only ones that *can* be GMO. For example, we’ve had GMO tomatoes and potatoes on the market in the past, but they didn’t perform very well due to flavor/texture/shelf-life issues and were removed.

  3. says

    It is so frustrating that I didn’t have enough produce put away for the winter. I hate buying from the produce section of the grocery store (I can’t wait for the farmers market!). I have tried to find out if there are any potatoes, tomatoes or bananas that aren’t gassed with ethylene (GMO corn-derived gas), but the produce manager hasn’t a clue. I wish there was some sort of code to indicate which produce is treated in any way with GMOs, but there is none and the produce manager is no help. I believe that GMO corn wax can even be used on organic produce, but I can’t be sure so we avoid any that are suspect. We haven’t had fruit in a very long time because my store doesn’t carry any organic (except lemons and waxed apples). The produce situation in my part of the country (Southeast) is dire – maybe it is better in some other parts of the country that are better informed about GMOs. I request organic produce that my store doesn’t carry and products that aren’t laced with GMOs, but I must be the only customer interested because I have been unsuccessful at every turn.
    .-= kc´s last blog post …Corn-free Ketchup Recipe =-.

    • says

      kc — Yeah, that really can be frustrating. Luckily, we don’t seem to be very sensitive to the GMO sprays or waxes (i.e. it’s nothing that peeling and a good wash don’t take care of). Winter around here is a lot of green stuff — salad greens, broccoli, and the like. Those are easy enough to find organic, and they’re certainly not waxed. I am thankful that we have a couple area CSAs that still offer produce in the winter, and even a few local farmers that continue their farm stands through the winter. BUT most of them take off for at least one month (like February or March), and then we’re in the same boat.

      • says

        There’s also a recipe you can make to get all the pesticides off! I have to try this with the cucumbers tho- they’re soooo waxy and I’ve even tried washing them with SOAP and they’re still waxy!(and I haven’t seen any at farmers markets)

    • says

      Cara — Plus, this only applies to produce. The biggest GMO offenders are corn and soy — and they’re EVERYWHERE (from numerous processed foods to the wax that gets used on your produce).

  4. Alex says

    Just another piece of optional information in life when WE are all supposed to stick with the program…funny isnt it??? NOT!!!!

    Thanks kristen!!!!

    I buy farmers market or organic…no processed foods–but the other day, i found a package of tostitos hidden in a cupboard i no longer use for food because grain beattles came in on some white pasta cooked for a school dinner (never again!!!!)….DARN husband!!! i snuck them out into the trash!!!

  5. says

    I’ve never really bothered looking at the PLU code, mainly because I did not realize it had special meaning. Other than organic and conventional, does the tag specify anything else?
    .-= Victor´s last blog post …To The End of Hell =-.

  6. Mythbuster? says

    Ok I’ve been hearing lots of noise online about how the 9 signifying GMO on produce is an urban legend. And while I agree that its very unlikely for GMO food producers to actually use it as intended a little searching reveals this “urban legend” does have a basis in fact.

    Here is a quote from a document “Produce PLU A User’s Guide” put out BY the International Federation for Produce Standards:

    “Fifth (Leading) Digit Qualifier

    The IFPS shall be responsible for deciding the assignment and definition of qualifying prefix digits for international recognition. At present, only three digits have been allocated:

    0 Applies to all non-qualified produce and is generally presented without the leading
    “zero” digit.
    8 Genetically modified
    9 Organic ”

    So those quoting that 8 signifies GMO foods may have in fact done their homework and aren’t spreading urban myths as is being said.

    Here is the link to the doc http://www.plucodes.com/docs/IFPS-plu_codes_users_guide.pdf

    …scroll through to page 7.

    I suppose the bottom line is that their is a lot of confusion. Which is a shame. We need to demand that we be told what is in our food and how it’s produced. GMO producers shouldn’t have a choice. They should have to clearly label their food as such.

  7. Rob Savinelli says

    I’m looking at a bag of Kettle Potato Chips. The package says Non-GMO ingredients. The PLU code is 84114 11632. This seems to directly violate the guidelines laid out in this convention.

    • -joshua! says

      Rob, That’s likely the UPC code, which is different from a PLU code. PLU codes are expressly for fresh produce. A bag of potato chips does not constitute fresh produce, and therefore does not have a PLU code.

      Now, as far as potato chips go, Kettle Brand Salt and Vinegar are the absolute best!

  8. Gadfly says

    @ Rob Savinelli: much like whole grains, the label states that it contains a product, not that it is 100% percent. They actually deserve Kudos on an honest PLU. For what it’s worth the GMO is most likely in the oil, really hard to find a frying oil that is not. In a similar vein, an organic product can be genetically modified. the organic PLU is meaningless when it comes to GMO. Know who you buy from be it a farmer or a multinational importer. Knowledge truly is your only defense.;.

    • PopulistFarmer says

      Nothing calling itself “organic” can have GMO ingredients. The certification process excludes that possibility. Unless you are talking about cross pollination which is a problem.

  9. Crystal Stevens says

    I have come to the conclusion that the only way to truly know what is in your food is to grow it all yourself! I am thankful I live where this is a possibility.

  10. JL Walton says

    I purchased bananas from Whole Foods grocery in Hawaii with a PLU code 94011. They came from Farm 100 in Ecuador, an organic farm. I have tasted better, these hardly had any flavor at all. Dole company has a lawsuit for using harmful pesticides in South America . How can Whole Foods trust them or are being force to sale the product?

  11. Lois Vierk says

    I just bought Rome tomatoes at Whole Foods, labeled “organic”, with a 6-digit PLU code: 693282. First time I’ve notice 6 digits. What does it mean? Thanks

    • EF says

      My husband just bought avocados that were in the organic section of Whole Foods with PLU # 64746 – I understand that the “4746” portion indicated that they are Hass and the size, but what does the “6” mean? My husband is taking them back to the store since they aren’t clearly labeled.

  12. Jo says

    “Fortunately, the kinds of GMO produce in the U.S. are quite limited: Hawaiian papayas, some zucchini and yellow squash, and corn on the cob. If you don’t buy these organic, they *may* be genetically-modified (or they may not be). If that uncertainty bothers you, stick to the organic label.”

    This is not true. Almost all soy, canola, corn and numerous other products are GMO in the US, and most packaged food products from corporate producers use GMO crop produce. Also, if it doesn’t say Certified Organic, the label ‘organic’ is not an assurance.

    • KristenM says

      If it is a packaged food product, it is not produce. My statement is specifically about produce, not the prevalence of GMOs in our food supply.

  13. says

    But that doesn’t change the fact that if it’s five digits starting with an 8 then it = GMO, right? This just means that if you see a standard four digit PLU starting with a 4 it’s conventionally grown and may or may not be GMO. So we’re questioning what the 4 guarantees, not the 8?

    The title and some comments seem to inicate a belief that 8 does not = GMO, but it still does. Right?

    So, the way I’m understanding it…
    – four digits beginning with a 4 = conventionally grown, may or may not be GMO
    – five digits beginning with a 9 = organically grown (and to be organic you can’t be GMO),
    – five digits beginning with an 8 = GMO

    I bought Dole kiwis at Costco today from Chile and they’re tagged with # 83804. Although there doesn’t seem to be a 3804 code listed on http://www.plucodes.com so I don’t know?

    • PopulistFarmer says

      In my little corner of the produce world we use the “8” to indicate local versus “from away” produce. The use of the 8 is definitely voluntary and varies from location to location. But think about it, folks, no producer is doing to voluntarily tell you that their product contains GMOs when opinion survey after opinion survey says the public won’t buy them if they know!

  14. Mary L says

    To add to the confusion…there are foods labelled with the certified organic logo which, upon inspection, come from China, Australia, Argentina, etc and which may not be organic at all! Many Chinese farmers just state their farm is “certified organic” “because they heard it’s popular in the US”! Buyer, be wary…

  15. -joshua! says

    PLU codes have the ABILITY to convey this information, but their primary function is to speed up the check-out lines and accurate pricing/record keeping. So much easier for a cashier to visually scan for a number and type it in than to identify the produce presented for purchase as either a satsuma or a tangerine.

    But again, the codes ARE set up to identify GMO produce…. just no one dares to actually utilize it.

    http://www.plucodes.com/faqs.aspx#q15

  16. Grace says

    I saw the 6 digits PLU label at the market today. What was it supposed to be? I tried to stick to organic food as much as I can. But after reading this article, I wonder if I am still buying GMO food without being acknowledged.

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