PLUs, GMOs and whack-a-moles

11/08/2012 09:37:00 AM
Pamela Riemenschneider

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?

Certainly not.

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.

click image to zoomHere's a screen cap of the most recent version of this produce labeling myth. Notice one of the comments suggests fact-checking (Snopes is your friend here...) but most people don't think to do that before they share.

"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 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.

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Kathy Means    
PMA, Newark, DE  |  November, 08, 2012 at 02:47 PM

There is a standardized coding system: the PLU system, which does have standardized codes for almost everything in the produce department. In place since 1990, the system has been adopted by most retailers in the United States and is used around the world. PLU codes are usually applied to the products by the shipper/packer. In the case of limes, which you mentioned, 4305 indicates Limes, Key (including Mexican and West Indian); 4048 indicates Limes, Regular (including Persian, Tahiti and Bearss), and 4306 indicates Limes, Retailer Assigned (used if a retailer has a specific need not met by existing codes). Other codes may indicate a commodity by variety, size, or region. For example, the PLU 4100 indicates large crispin/mutsu apple grown in East/Central North America. The PLU system was never designed to be a consumer communication device. The industry would never expect consumers to memorize four- or five-digit codes to determine what a product is or how it was grown. It is a voluntary system retailers use for to make checkout and inventory control easier, faster, and more accurate. This system benefits the consumer in that s/he is charged the accurate price at checkout and can easily use the self-checkout aisles in the supermarket. Retailers may or may not use prefixes indicating “organic” or “GMO” because a differentiating PLU is only necessary if the retailer is tracking sales of the differentiated product or has a different price point for it. The way to know whether a product is organic in the United States is to look for the USDA seal. When consumers have a question about their produce, including questions about GMOs, they should check with their supermarket produce manager.

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