Produce Labels Decoded: GMO, Organic, or ‘Conventional’?

The following article is reposted from Read It With a Grain of Salt, a blog about label-reading for healthy food decision-making.

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Written by: Allison Jorgens – “Read it with a Grain of Salt”  © 2012, Ontario, Canada

We have all seen cashiers at supermarkets type in the codes from those pesky stickers found on fresh fruits and vegetables, herbs, and sometimes nuts; Perhaps you have even typed the codes in yourself when using the manual checkouts some grocery stores now offer. But have you ever stopped to consider if you should be reading those codes while shopping?

The codes printed on those little stickers, that can be so annoying to peel off, represent the difference between potentially eating genetically engineered produce and/or produce sprayed with synthetic pesticides, versus, organically grown produce – not so annoying anymore are they? 

The next time you are shopping (or peeling the stickers off your produce) look for the following[1]:

  1. A 4 digit PLU code - an indication that produce is conventionally grown (potentially sprayed with synthetic pesticides).
  2. A 5 digit PLU code starting with the number 9 – an indication that produce is organically grown (refer to my blog post “Are Organic Products Worth the Hefty Price Tag” for 10 reasons why you may want to consider organic products the next time you are shopping).
  3. A 5 digit PLU code starting with the number 8 – an indication that produce is genetically modified (and potentially sprayed with synthetic pesticides).

Let’s put this into context!

The 4 digit code 4589 may be used to identify conventionally grown sweet corn.
The 5 digit code 94589 may be used to identity organically grown sweet corn.
The 5 digit code 84589 may be used to identify genetically modified sweet corn.

There is always a catch…

Unfortunately, the PLU labelling system is voluntary in Canada and currently there are no Canadian federal regulations specific to PLU stickers or what constitutes a PLU sticker.[3] Rest assured however, that although the use of the sticker may be optional, when a sticker is displayed the information on the sticker must be accurate and truthful. 

Empower Yourself!

1. The next time you are shopping remember to read the PLU codes on produce to decided if you want to leave it on the shelf or add it to your cart.
2. If you are buying organic, ensure the PLU code starts with the number 9. 
3. If you are trying to avoid genetically engineered produce look out for the number 8 – the unassuming number that actually translates to the claim “Product of Genetic Engineering.”


[1] Canadian Produce Marketing Association. PLU FAQ – Is the Use of PLU Labels a Canadian Regulatory Requirement? – http://www.cpma.ca/en/industry-resources/produce-codes-in-canada/plu-faq.aspx
[2] Organic Production Systems General Principles and Management Standards 1.4, “Prohibited Substances, Methods or Ingredients in Organic Production and Handling.” CAN/CGSB-32.310-2006, amended October 2008.
[3] Canadian Produce Marketing Association. Produce Coding and Identification in Canada. Fresh Facts: Produce Coding, version 1, November 12, 2010.
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6 thoughts on “Produce Labels Decoded: GMO, Organic, or ‘Conventional’?

  1. Pingback: Produce Labels Decoded: GMO, Organic, or 'Conventional ... | Farming articles | Scoop.it

  2. Pingback: Fresh Produce Marketing Company

  3. What I am wondering, is, are these PLU labels safe???? It’s obvious there is some type of glue that attaches them to the fruit, etc.. Even though we tend to all wash our fruits, I still want to know about this glue on the back of the PLU’s!!!

    Thank you!
    Pat B.G.

  4. what does it mean when there is a 6 in front of the 5 digit number that starts with a 9. Making the number a 6 digit number.

  5. looks like the fruit i picked up at the closest cheapest store that i have to shop at has pesticides sprayed on them.

  6. is there a way to neutralize or deactivate pesticides, like boiling or freezing or anything that consumers can do to protect themselves against pesticides if those are the only produce products that they can afford or that are available?

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