I’ve been involved in the fruit and veggie industry for a decade. I got my first job in the business exporting fruit out of New Zealand in 2002. After being warmly congratulated by Mom on my new job she launched into a rant over what she hated most about the fruit industry: “those nuisance stickers.”
Those “nuisance” stickers contain a PLU (product look up) number which is an internationally recognised identifier for that product. These codes have been used by supermarkets since 1990 but it wasn’t until 2001 that an international body (now the International Federation for Produce Standards or IFPS) began to harmonise the codes on a global level. There are still some codes which are specific to particular regions but PLU labels on a yellow, medium sized, conventionally grown bananas, for example, in North America, Australia and France should all read 4011.
There are several reasons we use PLUs. The obvious reason is they allow for the correct price to be charged at check out. The check out clerk doesn’t need to know the difference between a Royal Gala apple and a Red Delicious; or a conventionally grown avocado and an organically grown one; a large mango and or a small one. The code identifies what is being sold. Prior to the use of PLUs the price differentiation between sizes, varieties, conventional and organic was hard to control which meant retailers were often hesitant about carrying a large range of produce items for fear of losing money on the more expensive (premium) lines. Today, it’s much easier for retailers to carry a wider range of products to include different varieties, sizes and growing methods.
The implications for the industry of the fruit scanning correctly at point of sale isn’t just about pricing and profitability though. The use of PLUs also significantly improves the efficiency and accuracy of inventory control and the collection of sales data which go on to assist more efficient supply chains and better category management and marketing.
There are implications for the consumer too – once we know what those numbers mean.
Conventionally grown fruit and vegetables have a four digit PLU number. Currently the numbers issued from the IFPS are in the 3000 and 4000s.
If the number is four digits but is out of this range it is probably a specific retailer or regional created number where none is available on the global IFPS PLU list. (It might be a product the retailer sells exclusively or a patented variety – such as Del Monte Gold Pineapple – where one company grows and markets the product exclusively. Neither of these situations are eligible for a global PLU).
A five digit number with a 9 in the front means it is certified organic.
A five digit number with an 8 in the front means it is genetically modified produce.
This information is important because I believe consumers should know where our food comes from and how it is grown but one of the arguments against this information being clear on the labelling is that consumers can be making choices about their food without fully understanding what the categories imply. Like many other consumers, I like to know where and how my produce is grown. But I see a lot of anti conventional growing information flying around where conventional farming gets unfairly attacked for being “dirtier” than it really is whilst organically grown produce is exalted as being “so much healthier” than the reality of it too. The gap between the two is probably much smaller than you may think. The conventional vs organic debate is much longer than I can fit into this paragraph and it will have to wait for an entirely another post (and GM foods, well, there’s two sides to that story too and that’s another post again).
I’m pro fruit and veggies first and foremost – but I do like knowing where my food is from and how it is grown so I read my fruit labels. I hope that this information has been helpful to other’s who feel the same way.
A complete list of global PLU codes are available at www.plucodes.com.