Produce Police: Is that Orange Really Organic?

You know those annoying little stickers that you always have to peel off fruit and vegetables? Well, they give some very important consumer information: the name of the fruit or vegetable producer and the Price Look-Up (PLU) code.

This four- or five-digit code not only facilitates the lives of cashiers everywhere, but also helps grocery stores keep better inventory. By entering the PLU into a cash register, the cashier immediately sees the type of produce, the price per weight and whether the produce was conventionally or organically grown.

For instance, the code for a conventionally grown standard yellow banana is 4011. However, the code for an organically grown standard yellow banana is 94011. And if your standard yellow banana has been...(cringe) genetically modified, the code will be 84011.

So who sets these codes?

In 2001, produce associations worldwide banded together to form the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS). Its purpose was to implement a global standard by way of PLUs to improve supply chain efficiency.

The IFPS site claims that PLU codes have been used in supermarkets since 1990, but I can remember using PLUs working as a cashier in the 80s. However, at the time I probably wasn't concerned about whether them apples were organically grown.

Have you ever thought you may be paying organic prices for conventionally grown produce?

With my new found knowledge, I decided to hit some neighbourhood stores. I started at the convenience store where we shop regularly. Sure enough, I found four-digit PLUs on all fruit and veggies sold in bulk. This store rarely, if ever, carries organic produce. (Incidentally, nuts and herbs also have PLUs.)

The second store I visited is where I buy all our weekly organic products. I did some checking around and saw that they all appeared to have five-digit PLU codes starting with a 9. Very good. But then, I seized upon some mangoes without an organic code. I raised the issue with the shopkeeper's son, who looked at me in disbelief, as I explained the PLU coding for organic fruit. The shopkeeper then ran over to rescue his son from the mad produce shopper.

"No. Those are not organic," he said. "Come inside. I show you organic mango."

Now, I asked this same shopkeeper last fall whether everything in his store was organic, and I specifically remember him answering, "Yes." But I guess that depends on the time of year and what is available. I went back to look at the conventionally grown mangoes and was happy to see that they were in the conventional price range.

My green grocer was off the hook. Will yours be?

Related posts on fruit and vegetables:

Meet the Clean 15
Evironmental Working Group Updates its Dirty Dozen
Buying Local: Vegetables Year Round


Ronnica | May 18, 2009 at 5:45 PM

Interesting. I was a cashier back before organic was yeah, everything had the 4-digit code (I'll never forget the code for bananas, and even today, 4 years later, probably could name off another 50 codes or so). I wouldn't worry so much about the stickers as about the price they ring up at the register.

Heather | May 24, 2009 at 5:29 PM

I have been looking out for tags since I made this post, and even the big chains are conscientious about using the right tags. I have yet to find a shop where they were trying to sell conventionally grown produce at organic prices. However, I am shocked by the number of people working with produce who did not know that the 9 meant it was organic.

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