February 21, 2019
PLU Codes on Produce
Ask the Experts

PLU Codes on Produce

by Berkeley Wellness  

Q: What do those numerical code stickers on produce mean?

A: These 4- or 5-digit numbers are PLU (Price Look Up) codes, which identify attri­butes of fresh fruits and vegetables, including their variety, size, and how they were grown. They are assigned by the International Feder­ation for Produce Standards (IFPS), a global coalition of fruit and vegetable associations, and are used on a voluntary basis in super­markets to help with pricing, inventory, and other purposes. For example, the code lets the cashier know what kind of apple you’re buying, so you are charged the right price.

PLU codes are intended for the food indus­try and are of limited value for shoppers. Still, here are a couple of interesting points:

Codes with 4 digits are meant to represent conventionally grown produce. For example, a standard yellow banana is 4011. A 5-digit code beginning with 9 indicates organically grown produce. For an organic banana, that code simply becomes 94011. However, an organic item could just have a 4-digit code, since it’s up to retailers if they want to use the labels to differentiate their organic produce. The best way to identify organic produce is still to look for the USDA certified organic seal.

Some websites incorrectly report that a 5-digit code beginning with an “8” identifies produce with genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—and that this offers a way to avoid GMOs, if that’s desired. But according to IFPS, though the prefix “8” was originally reserved for GMO produce, that was never actually implemented, and the organization will use this number to code additional produce vari­eties in future years. In any case, hardly any fresh produce in supermarkets is currently GMO, except some papaya and, less com­monly, summer squash and sweet corn. If you want to avoid them, your best bet, again, is to buy organic, since by law organic production cannot include the use of GMOs.

If you’re curious to know more about the produce you buy, the PLU database gives the variety, botanical classification, and other infor­mation for each code.

Also see 9 Insider Supermarket Tips.