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What Do the Numbers on Those Tiny Produce Stickers Tell Us?

A PMA volunteer committee developed price lookup codes back in 1988. One important reason for PLUs was to enable supermarkets to tell the difference between conventionally grown fruits and vegetables and higher-priced organic food.

“Organic produce was being introduced by retailers then and they were paying a premium for organic, and their cashiers were selling it at the conventional price,” Treacy says. “A conventionally grown fruit or vegetable looks the same as an organic fruit or vegetable.”

To solve that problem, the industry came up with a system in which conventionally grown produce items are assigned four-digit numbers in the 3000 and 4000 range. If a fruit or vegetable is raised organically, it gets a prefix of 9 placed in front of the usual code for that item, according to an article on the PMA website. The PMA adds that the codes “are not intended to convey information to consumers. They are simply business tools for accurate price rings at the cash register, inventory control and category management.” Also, the numbers inside these four-digit codes are randomly assigned.

There are now more than 1,500 different PLUs in use around the globe. If you want to know what a particular one means, IFPS offers this web-based PLU search app. Just type in the code from a sticker on a piece of fruit, and it will tell you that 3114, for example, signifies an extra-large green mango, botanical name magnifera indicabelonging to the Keith or Francis varieties of that fruit.

The PLU system enables retailers to tell the difference between 80 or so different varieties of apples, as well as between smaller and bigger versions of some varieties, from small Akane applies (4098) to large Fuji apples (4131), as well as Honeycrisp (3283), Rubinette (3008) and Virginia Gold (3271). Jerusalem artichokes (4791), baby sweet corn (4589), red leaf lettuce (4075), five different types of watermelons, 16 different varieties of oranges and 35 different types of pears also have their own numbers in the system.

To get a sense of the diverse assortment of fruits and vegetables available in supermarkets, see this list of PLU codes. Companies can request that new PLU codes for produce varieties be added to the list by applying to the IFPS board.

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