Pamela Riemenschneider, Aisle Wandering
Pamela Riemenschneider, Aisle Wandering

The failure of Proposition 37 in California caused a new cycle of Internet rumors and half truths about how to identify genetically modified foods.

Most notable for the produce department is the whack-a-mole that is the Produce Look-Up Code Guide. I’ve seen several iterations of it repinned on Pinterest, shared on Facebook and circulating around Twitter.

While I understand the intentions may be good, it’s giving well-meaning consumers the false impression they’ve got a secret code to decipher the produce department.

Inner sanctum mysteries?

The code guide tells consumers that four-digit codes are conventionally grown, five-digit codes starting with a 9 are organic, and five-digit codes that begin with 8 have genetically modified organism material.

The problem with this is that PLU codes aren’t for produce identification purposes.

PLU stands for “Price Look-Up,” and the stickers were designed to help grower-shippers and retailers ensure proper ring-through in their computer systems.

Not every piece of organic produce in my local store has a 9XXXX code. Lacinato kale, for example, is a 4-digit code that starts with 6. Consumers need to know the only way they can be certain of organic produce is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal.

And what about that GMO 8XXXX code?

Unlocking answers

First off, GMO produce labeling isn’t mandated, and secondly, there isn’t much besides sweet corn and Hawaiian papaya that would qualify for this code.

If a grower-shipper is using stickers with this GMO code, I’d like to hear about it because I haven’t seen it yet.

I’m not saying PLU stickers can’t evolve into something useful for consumers.

I’ve seen bigger stickers that have a PLU and grower identity, or recipes and handling instructions. These are usually limited to hard-skinned items such as melons and squashes, however.

Databars, too, can be used by consumers to access information now that there are apps like Greenscans out there.

Greenscans allows consumers to use a smartphone to access information from the quick-response code, databar or Universal Product Code they find on fruits and vegetables, but it only works for brands that have signed up to include their information.

For now, let’s make sure consumers know the best way to answer their produce questions is to ask, and make sure store-level people have the right answers.

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