Unless you’re shopping exclusively at farmer’s markets, you’re probably familiar with PLU, “Price Look Up,” stickers.
They’re little stickers with number codes that are four- or five-digits long; cashiers use the codes during checkout to identify the exact fruit or vegetable. If you’ve ever worked in a supermarket, you probably have a few of the most common codes memorized.
While the stickers themselves are a minor annoyance—nobody likes picking adhesive off of their apples—the PLU codes seem relatively straightforward. However, they’re not totally random; the code is meant to indicate something about the fruit, although the system doesn’t always work perfectly (we’ll get to that in a moment).
The International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS) issues PLU numbers, and they use a fairly consistent methodology.
First, the codes are always four- or five digits long. Five digit codes starting with the numeral 9 are typically reserved for produce that qualifies as “organic.” If a five-digit code starts with a 0, however, it’s a conventionally grown (non-organic) product. That’s also true for all of the produce with four-digit codes.
The last four digits of either type of code provide identification for the product. Currently, PLU codes utilize numbers in the range of 3000–4999 for conventionally grown produce, although the IFPS notes that they’ll expand to add additional series in the future.
Why are so many numbers necessary? Individual retailers (typically large supermarkets) reserve blocks of numbers. Also, some products have different PLU codes based on the location of their growth. For instance, PLU code 4318 is reserved for small melons grown east of the Mississippi River while the PLU code for large melons grown in the same part of the country is 4319.
Yes, PLU codes get complicated.
It’s also essential to note that they’re intended for the companies that grow and market produce—not consumers. The IFPS may decide to issue a four-digit code to an organic product if the product has the same price as its non-organic alternative. In other words, if organic lettuce typically costs the same amount as conventionally grown lettuce, the IFPS won’t waste time by giving each product its own code.
This means that consumers can’t instantly tell whether a piece of produce is organic or conventional simply by looking at the PLU code. You’re better off looking for organic labels, or, ideally, researching the company that brought the
However, if you’re trying to choose between two pieces of fruit and you’ve got a preference for organics, the PLU code might at least point you in the right direction.
Oh, and as for that sticker, be sure to peel it off. The long-standing urban legend claiming that the stickers are made from special edible paper isn’t exactly true since all paper is technically edible. As Snopes points out, “safe to eat” is a much more accurate description, but the FDA still recommends peeling off the sticker before enjoying your snack.