UPDATE 11/9/2012: Thanks to PMA's Kathy Means for setting me straight on this subject. It sure does sting when I've got something wrong.
The failure of Prop. 37 in Calfornia brought up a new crop of the retail produce whack-a-mole that is the PLU code guide.
Have you seen it? I’ve seen several iterations on Pinterest and in my Facebook news feed. Is there a secret, hidden code that consumers in the know can use to navigate their produce department?
The problem with it is that PLU codes weren't initially meant to be used as a consumer guide. They're a system for grower-shippers and retailers to ensure they're getting the right ring-through on produce.
Yes, some retailers use the 9-XXXX PLU code to distinguish organic from conventional. Organic bananas, for example, generally bear a 94011 code. But this isn't the way to identify organic produce. The only way to be certain produce is organic is to look for the USDA Organic seal.
"You do not have to have organic certification to put that 9 on there," says Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Produce Marketing Association."Consumers shouldn't even look for the 9 to understand organic.
At the store I shop most frequently, not all organic produce bears a 9-XXXX PLU, and I know this because we use self service scales and the lacinato kale starts with a 6. (We make a lot of kale chips in the Riemenschneider house.)
The 9-XXXX code is becoming more prominent as retailers boost their organic produce offerings. At the Pavillions by Von's in Newport Beach, Calif., for example, I saw produce with stickers that said "Check for the 9." This was a stop on the PMA's Fresh Summit Retail Tour and I overheard some participants asking a produce clerk what that sticker meant and she explained it was a system Von's is using to ensure organic produce rings up correctly.
That's still not an application for consumers to identify organic produce. It's for retailers to ensure proper ring-through.
And what about PLU codes for GMO produce? I’ve not yet heard of a grower-shipper who would use it, but there really isn’t much available in the produce department besides sweet corn and Hawaiian papaya. So yes, if you did see an 8-XXXX PLU code, it's probably genetically modified, but a grower-shipper isn't required to use that code, so I wouldn't trust this as my guide.
Don’t we all wish everyone would check Snopes.com before they pass along this information? You, me and my crazy conspiracy theorist Uncle would get along a lot better if we fact-checked before sharing.
Snopes’ entry for this subject gives it a partially true rating, but does point out that:
“Consumers should be aware, however, that PLU codes are an option which is used for the convenience of suppliers and grocers and not customers, so not all produce (particularly genetically modified varieties) are so labeled, and other sources of information may be better for distinguishing the differences between various forms of produce.”
The entry also directs readers to a wizard hosted by the Produce Marketing Association where they can look up PLU codes, but even that’s not going to fully explain the PLU code mystery to consumers because this information is voluntary, and is used primarily for retailer and supplier databases.
That's not to say that those stickers aren't telling consumers anything. I've seen big ones on watermelons, squashes and the like that bear a lot more information than just the PLU, such as usage, branding, grower and even recipes.
And some are pushing to make databars usable for consumers. There's a new app out there called greenscans that allows consumers to scan a databar with their smart phone to access information about fruits and vegetables. This only works for companies signed on to supply information to the app, however. This is something we'll see develop over the next few years.
Bottom line:Yes, generally, 4-digit PLU codes are conventional, and 9-XXXX PLU codes can be organic (but not necessarily), but this isn't something consumers are meant to rely on in place of mandated labeling, such as the USDA Organic seal.