Secrets of the fruit and veggie industry: what those stickers mean

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.”

The numbers on our fruit stickers have more use than you might think.

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.

Quick, go check the number on your bananas!

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.

A PLU label on a conventionally grown navel orange. The PLU is 4 digits and in the 3000s range.

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).

Exclusively grown, marketed or sold products don’t have global PLUs issued from the IFPS.

A five digit number with a 9 in the front means it is certified organic.

A PLU label on a Cameo apple. The 9 at the front indicates that it is certified organic.

A five digit number with an 8 in the front means it is genetically modified produce.

A PLU label on genetically modified grapes. In Australia and New Zealand the words “genetically modified” are legally required on the label (unless it is so highly processed the DNA is removed or the GM product is less than 1% of the ingredients).  However, in the US genetically modified labelling is not compulsory.

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.

PACT educating consumers on how to read PLU labels.

A complete list of global PLU codes are available at www.plucodes.com.

Photo credits: 12, 34 and 5, 6, 7.

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9 Responses to Secrets of the fruit and veggie industry: what those stickers mean

  1. Okay – you score some excellent points here in this argument. I will specially look out for labels with PLUs with five digit numbers beginning with 8. I would be interested to hear what you have to say about golden kiwifruit, which I never thought of as genetically modified until someone told me they were. (They may not have been correct.) Will look forward to seeing your blog on GM or GE foods.

    However – maybe those who label fruit could do something for both my serenity and for the planet. Could a label be designed that comes off nectarine skins without damaging the fruit’s skin? I like my fruit to look good in the bowl and those labels looks so crass and commercial.

    Also, could they design a label that will decompose in the compost. Mostly we pick away at those dashed labels before the skins make it to the compost. But when you are out there happily playing with all those gorgeous worms and decomposed food scraps to make your garden grow, what are you supposed to do with that single nasty little bit of plastic sticker that is still as bright as the day it was printed? No point just chucking it back in the compost.

    • Sarah says:

      What a great set of questions and comments!
      1. It is very unlikely that you will see any genetically modified fruit on a supermarket shelf in New Zealand (or Australia for that matter). The supermarket industry is relatively concentrated in those markets to a few major players, all of which, from my understanding, are not game to put GM fruit or vegetables in their stores due to concerns over consumer backlash. If you see something that proves that position wrong please let me know!
      2. The Gold Kiwifruit developed by Zespri is NOT genetically engineered. In fact Zespri’s current position on GE foods is to not have anything to do with it (due primarily to consumer perception). I’ll talk more about how the Gold Kiwifruit, seedless watermelon, Calypso mango and other non GM fruits have been developed in another post as it is interesting!
      3. There are many different fruit sticker manufacturers and so some will be “stickier” than others. (All must be made with lead-free dyes and food grade glue). Most fruit stickers now have a little tab bit (sometimes they put a triangle or half circle to make it more obvious), try taking it off from that bit first. It will be easier to get the sticker off whilst the nectarine is still hard rather than when it’s ripe. Another trick you may want to try is using warmer water when you rinse the nectarine which should soften the glue a bit more.
      4. I believe there are stickers that decompose in existence but they are currently not common. The primary reason being that they will break down quickly on contact with fruit, particularly since they are kept in wet, refrigerated environments once packed and in the supply chain system. This is something that people in the industry are working on and hopefully in the future we will see more of.
      Thanks for all your great questions!

  2. John Faris says:

    Dear Sarah – thank you for the information which I did not know. I didn’t even know they were called PLUs and I had not even noticed they had a number!! I suspect I am unlikely to use the information so I am sorry, but I think I will have to open up the recycle bin and park the information there. (But then I don’t think I was meant to be quite as unknowledgeable on what you meant by colours in my diet either).

  3. Those stickers – how about biodegradable stickers that start to fade and get less sticky from the day they are put on the fruit? If the fruit is fresh, the sticker will be stuck on and the numbers will show. Each subsequent day the sticker becomes less and less able to do the job and as consumers we know the fruit is less and less fresh. That way we won’t have so many soggy apples that look fine on the outside, or pears with big brown splodges inside.

  4. Steven says:

    Thanks for this article, it’s given me clarity over those stickers I keep seeing on my fruits. Now it’ll be so much easier to spot organic produce in supermarkets when I can’t get to an organic produce market. And great idea on those biodegradable stickers!

  5. Jess says:

    I have tomatoes that start with a 6, but a 9 comes after it so I am assuming that it is organic?

    • Ana says:

      If it is a 4 digit number it’s just a generic PLU (price look up) number. If it is 5 digits and the very first number is 9 then that’s organic. These are common tomato PLUs:

      Tomato

      Beef / Beefsteak (3061)
      Cherry, red (4796), on the vine (3146), yellow (4797), on the vine (3147)
      Cocktail / Intermediate Red (3150), on the vine [Truss] (3335)
      Cocktail / Intermediate Red / Plum / Italian / Saladette / Roma, on the vine [Truss] (3336)
      Greenhouse / Hydroponic, regular, red, small (4798), large (4799)
      Heirloom (3423)
      Native / Home Grown (4800)
      Plum / Italian / Saladette / Roma, red (4087), on the vine (3282), yellow (3145)
      Regular, orange, on the vine (3149); red, small (4063), large (4064), on the vine [Truss] (4664); yellow (4778), on the vine [Truss] (3148)
      Teardrop / Pear, red (4803), yellow (4804)
      Tomatillos / Husk Tomatoes (4801)
      Vine Ripe, regular, red, small (4805), large (3151)
      dried (4802)
      retailer assigned (4806-4808)

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