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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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.
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39 Responses to PLU Codes Don’t Indicate GMO Produce
  1. anewgreenearth
    March 4, 2010 | 7:04 pm

    PLU Codes Don’t Indicate GMO Produce http://bit.ly/abYb82

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  2. Kelly the Kitchen Kop
    March 4, 2010 | 9:02 pm

    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! =-.

    • KristenM
      March 5, 2010 | 10:49 am

      Kelly — I *so* sympathize. I’ve believed this for years, despite never once seeing a PLU code that began with an 8.

    • Chris MacDonald
      September 9, 2010 | 9:08 am

      Kelly, as Smith points out, ALL aspects of the PLU are voluntary, so you can’t rely on the “8=organic” thing, either.

      Chris MacDonald
      Food-Ethics.com
      .-= Chris MacDonald´s last blog post …Meat Production and Utopian Fantasies =-.

  3. Debbie
    March 4, 2010 | 9:19 pm

    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!

    • KristenM
      March 5, 2010 | 10:51 am

      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.

  4. daveoneil
    March 4, 2010 | 9:25 pm

    You’re definitely going to want to know this. Definitely. Stick to 5-digit PLUs and avoid those beginning with “8.” http://bit.ly/bvoMRf

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  5. kc
    March 4, 2010 | 10:50 pm

    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 =-.

    • KristenM
      March 5, 2010 | 10:58 am

      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.

      • Kale Blossom
        December 31, 2011 | 7:30 am

        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)

  6. KitCKelly
    March 5, 2010 | 2:15 am

    Thought For Food: What PLU Codes say and don’t say about the produce your buying. http://shar.es/m3KBl

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  7. Cara @ Health Home and Happiness
    March 5, 2010 | 9:25 am

    Thanks for posting this. I had heard about the numbers meaning different things, but was pretty skeptical and never bothered to learn them, for the reasons you mentioned. I know they’re going to fight to keep from labeling GMO food, and couldn’t imagine it would have been this simple ;)
    .-= Cara @ Health Home and Happiness´s last blog post …Almond Flour Berry Cobbler (SCD, GAPS, gluten free) =-.

    • KristenM
      March 5, 2010 | 10:59 am

      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).

  8. reedscooking
    March 5, 2010 | 12:34 pm

    #Cooking PLU Codes Don’t Indicate GMO Produce | Food Renegade: This was especially frustrating w… http://bit.ly/97yjJb http://adf.ly/1MU1

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  9. Alex
    March 5, 2010 | 1:56 pm

    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!!!

  10. PureFoodJourney
    March 6, 2010 | 6:48 am

    Can you identify GMO produce by the PLU code? Well… Yes and no. Mostly no… http://tinyurl.com/y9uhzb7

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  11. Victor
    March 7, 2010 | 12:53 pm

    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 =-.

  12. greenteagirl
    March 8, 2010 | 8:17 am

    Interesting blog post: PLU Codes Don’t Indicate GMO Produce http://bit.ly/9LszIW

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  13. Activism101
    March 8, 2010 | 9:25 pm

    PLU Codes Don’t Indicate #GMO Produce http://is.gd/9XUen via @FRESHthemovie

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  14. Stanley Fishman
    March 9, 2010 | 5:05 pm

    Thank you for posting this. I did not know that the codes are optional. Yet another reason to only buy organic or the equivalent. I try to buy as much as I can from local farmers.
    .-= Stanley Fishman´s last blog post …Stop Senate Bill 510 — Save Organic Food =-.

  15. Mythbuster?
    August 27, 2010 | 12:21 pm

    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.

    • Chris MacDonald
      September 9, 2010 | 9:13 am

      It’s good to know the root of the confusion!
      The “8″ would be meaningful if it were mandatory. But it’s not mandatory, so looking for “8″ (or the absence of “8″) is only going to be misleading.

      Chris MacDonald
      Food-Ethics.com
      .-= Chris MacDonald´s last blog post …Meat Production and Utopian Fantasies =-.

  16. Rob Savinelli
    October 4, 2010 | 1:36 pm

    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!
      March 4, 2013 | 6:16 pm

      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!

  17. Gadfly
    October 26, 2010 | 10:18 pm

    @ 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
      August 5, 2012 | 4:03 pm

      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.

  18. Crystal Stevens
    April 17, 2012 | 7:09 pm

    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.

  19. JL Walton
    May 30, 2012 | 12:14 am

    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?

  20. Lois Vierk
    June 6, 2012 | 5:38 pm

    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
      October 6, 2012 | 4:47 pm

      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.

  21. Jo
    June 10, 2012 | 8:33 pm

    “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
      June 10, 2012 | 8:50 pm

      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.

  22. Sarah
    July 9, 2012 | 1:18 am

    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
      August 5, 2012 | 4:07 pm

      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!

  23. Mary L
    July 12, 2012 | 6:49 am

    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…

    • PopulistFarmer
      August 5, 2012 | 4:08 pm

      Mary, you are so correct!!!!

  24. -joshua!
    March 4, 2013 | 6:30 pm

    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

  25. leo
    June 18, 2013 | 1:36 pm

    Best true way to identify if it’s GMO? Just eat it. If your guts start rumbling, it’s GMO.

  26. Grace
    March 30, 2014 | 11:31 pm

    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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My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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