Cracking The Fruit Sticker Code

Fruits with PLU Stickers

Tired of plucking those little stickers out of the vegetable garden, that had passed through the compost completely un-composted and just a little faded, the bakers wanted to know what purpose they really served.

We have waded through the mire of propaganda and misinformation that abounds, and we believe we have cracked the code, the fruit sticker code…

The letdown to this tale of woe is that quite simply, there isn’t a code.

Contrary to popular perception, these stickers and their 4- or 5-digit codes are not intended to convey any information to the consumers. Their purpose is little more than to assist checkout operators to correctly identify bulk produce, to ensure you are correctly charged for the delightful looking royal gala apple (code #4173) you have picked, and not for the out-of-season fuji apple (code #4129).

These stickers and their codes are known as PLU stickers and codes, where PLU stands for Price Look-Up. The PLU stickers are used on produce items that are sold loose or bunched, by weight or by each. The PLU code is used to differentiate varieties, sizes and in some instances growing regions, however there is no system to the allocation of the numbers so it can not be decoded by the consumer, or by anyone really. The only option is to look up the code on the PLU code database.

There is arguably one piece of “code” and that is the ‘9’ digit used to identify organic produce. PLU codes are typically a 4-digit code for conventionally grown produce, with a 5-digit code used for organic produce. The prefix ‘9’ is placed in front of the 4-digit conventionally-grown code to signify the organically produced version.

Unfortunately, the presence or absence of the 9 prefix is not a sure-fire guarantee that the produce is or is not organic. The only way to verify a product is a true organic product is to look for some “Certified Organic” labeling in addition to the PLU sticker.

Then there is the curious case of the ‘8’. The ‘8’ prefix causes much controversy, debate and misinformation. There was a point in time when the ‘8’ prefix was set aside to be used for genetically modified produce. However this part of the system never became used at the retail level and has since been removed from the system. Regardless of what you read on various internet blogs and forums, there is no differentiator in the PLU code for GM foods. It isn’t a huge issue as a retail consumer in Australia since our food standards authorities allow very limited GM produce into the country anyway.

The quick lowdown on the less interesting aspects of the PLU code system…

  • The PLU codes are assigned by the IFPS (International Federation for Produce Standards).
  • The PLU coding system is voluntary.
  • The PLU coding system is an international system.
  • There is no system to the allocation of the numbers so there is no intelligence built into the codes with no single number within the code representing anything in particular.

And finally, to see the codes in all their glory, lets have a look at the PLU codes in action for the humble red delicious apple…

  • 4015 is a small, red delicious apple.
  • 4016 is a large, red delicious apple.
  • 4167 is a small, red delicious apple grown in a specific region of the US.
  • 94015 could be used for an organically-grown, small, red delicious apple.

So there you have it, those annoying fruit and veg stickers with their PLU codes are simply business tools used for inventory control, accurate price rings at the register and data to inform retailers what customers are purchasing. The codes are not intended to convey information to consumers.

We do wish they were compostable though…

That is all for this baker’s investigation, but if there is an issue in the food, nutrition or exercise world that you would like the bakers to investigate next, leave us a comment and we’ll see what we can do.

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