If you are an experienced grocery store shopper, you know that fruits and vegetables from the produce product have a PLU code. The PLU code is entered by the cashier to identify the fruit or vegetable, which is then weighed or sold by quantity. If you ever do self-checkout, which is appearing more and more in supermarkets, you may have entered the PLU code yourself. These codes are not unique to your store (well, the standard codes are not). The same fruit or vegetable will always bear a particular code. These codes have been used since 1990 (I know, seems like forever).
The codes actually do mean things but you need to know a few things about them first. They are assigned by an international body called the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS). This is an independent body composed of national produce associations from around the world. The purpose of the codes is to assist retail establishments with point-of-sale identification. Although most medium to large retailers use these codes, they are not required to do so by any government agency or regulation. So, you might find some produce items with produce stickers bearing the PLU code, and some without. You might enter a store where none are used at all.
The standard codes are four digits starting with a 3 or a 4. These numbers from 3000 to 4000 are randomly assigned. According to IFPS, “there is no intelligence built into the 4-digit code.” Each of the individual numbers hold no meaning. They are nothing more than a randomly generated 4-digit code assigned to a particular item of produce. If you have a PLU you can look up what produce it identifies by using a handy search wizard. You can search by PLU code, category, or just look at all the codes. A couple of aging apples I have here while writing this bear the codes 4135 and 4017. The first identifies “Apples, Gala, Large.” The second, “Apples, Granny Smith, Large.” Of course, the stickers with the codes on them actually give the variety of the apple, so I didn’t really need to look up the code. But, keep in mind that there is no other purpose for the PLU than to help the retailer look up the price. A label or sticker bearing the number absolutely does not have to give the name of the produce. On the other hand, a retailer can put anything else on the sticker along with the code. I looked up Gala by category, by the way, and got 4135 for large gala apples, so the system seems accurate.
Now, some codes have 5-digit codes. When this happens it is because an extra 8 or 9 has been added to the standard 4-digit code. Or, to be more clear, because a nine has been added, because no retailers use an eight. A nine added to the beginning of the 4-digit code identifies organically grown items. An eight identifies genetically modified organisms. Since they are not required to, nobody uses eight, knowing that most consumers would not buy fruits or vegetables they knew were genetically modified. However, in case someone wanted to do so, IFPS assigned a number.
Of course, not every type of produce is convenient for stickers. You can’t really put stickers on collard greens or green beans. But a display sign may bear the code. That’s 4614 for collard greens, or brassica oleracea, placing it in the ubiquitous cabbage family.
What’s that? You found a 5-digit code that does not start with an 8 or a 9? This might happen. As stated, there are no real regulations, and there is nothing stopping a retailer from developing its own internal numbering system, by adding additional numbers to a code, etc. There is no telling what these additional numbers might mean, short of asking the retailer. Only the eights and nines are official PLU codes. You might also find “PLU” codes on items sold in bulk but that are not considered produce, such as coffee or bulk candy. These are established by retailers for their convenience.
PLU Codes and Organic Fruits and Vegetables
If you are concerned with buying only organic fruits and vegetables, you can look for PLU codes starting with a nine. However, as stated, PLU codes may not always be dependable. A store may use its own system, or if the pricing of an organic and conventional item is the same, the nine may be omitted. Remember that PLU codes were never meant to help consumers identify produce, but only to help retailors. Most grocery stores identify organic produce through the use of signs.
Are Fruit Stickers Really Edible?
There is a rumor, floating here and there, that the stickers found on fruit and vegetables are edible, and that they are made from edible paper. Although it is possible that some fruits or vegetables might bear such stickers, and I’ve heard talk that such stickers have been developed, there is no requirement for a retailer to use an “edible” sticker. The stickers on those apples I mentioned above? PLASTIC. A very stretchy kind of plastic that I highly doubt could be considered edible. Given that, if you don’t choke on it, accidentally swallowing a produce sticker now and again is not likely to harm you. The glue used to adhere the stickers, however, is food grade glue. You don’t technically need to worry about washing it off. But, you should wash all your fruits and vegetables before eating them, so…