Deciphering Produce Labels and Codes

The produce department at the grocery store is the most shopped department.  Usually located at the front of the store, the brightly colored fruits and vegetables and eye-catching displays welcome shoppers to the store and the opportunity to explore nutritious options.  As shoppers peruse the aisles and refrigerated cases to make selections, one is sure to also find produce labels and stickers on the many selections. What do these stickers and labels tell us?

Various labels found on produce at the market
Eight different examples of food labels found on produce. Photos: mrgeiger

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for assuring that foods sold in the United States are safe, wholesome and properly labeled. This applies to foods produced domestically, as well as foods from foreign countries.  The laws require that labels on food be truthful and not misleading, but the laws don’t regulated definitions for all of the labels that one may see.  Here’s some help with deciphering what each label or sticker means.

FDA Regulated Labels

Country of Origin: Perishable produce must be labeled with the country where it was grown.

USDA Organic: This label indicates that the produce was produced on a certified farm that follows regulated organic procedures, such as non-use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and was processed without artificialingredients or chemical processing aids. Organic should not be confused with “natural.” Natural has little meaning for produce.

Nutrition Facts Label: If packaging makes a claim about nutrients, the Food and Drug Administration requires a nutrition label. So if the packaging is stamped with “good source of . . .,” it must have a Nutrition Facts Label.

Excellent Source Of/High In: A label bearing this claim must contain at least 20 percent of the daily requirement of that nutrient in a serving.  A Good Source Of label indicates that one serving has 10-19 percent of the daily dose of the named nutrient.c

Fresh: Fresh means that the food is in its raw state and has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or any other form of preservation.  Fresh does not address when the produce was harvested or if the produce was washed in a mild chlorine solution prior to packaging or shipping.

Unregulated Claims

Washed/Triple-Washed/Ready to Eat: Most produce gets a rinse prior to marketing.  However, a washing claim may only mean that the produce has had dirt or grit removed; it is not a guarantee that it is bacteria-free.

Pesticide-Free: This label could mean one of two things:  1) no pesticides were used during growing; or 2) pesticide residue has been washed away. There’s no real way to know unless it bears an organic label.

Hydroponically Grown/Hydroponic: This label generally means that the produce was grown in a greenhouse using a nutrient solution instead of soil.

Non-GMO:  The only possible GMOs to be found in the produce aisles include potatoes, squash/pumpkins, papayas, sweet corn, and soy beans (edamame). If this label were to appear on a package of greens, for example, it would be a misnomer.

Gluten Free:  Fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten free.  This is a true claim but misleading in meaning.

No Preservatives/Free from Artificial Ingredients: Preservatives or artificial ingredients are not usually added to fresh produce making this label misleading on nearly all produce. 

Price Look-Up StickersPLUs

Besides the labels, there are also price look-up (PLU) stickers found on many fruits and vegetables. Sometimes labels and stickers are one in the same.  The PLU stickers on produce were designed for scanning and pricing at the checkout and to remove cashiers (or now self-checkout customers) of the responsibility to accurately identify the product and whether it is conventionally or organically grown. In a small way, the the PLUs may also help consumers with some information about the produce item. No matter where you shop, the produce code for any particular fruit or veggie will be the same as codes are assigned through the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS). The codes identify a specific commodity (apple, squash, pepper, etc), variety (Red Delicious, Honey Crisp, Golden Delicious, etc), and size (small, med, large, etc). There are currently over 1400 PLU codes issued for fresh produce and produce related items used on unprocessed food around the world. These codes have been used since 1990 and are administered by the IFPS. However, it is an imperfect system with no governing oversite or regulating laws; it is voluntary on the part of the producer who can opt out of using the codes or adding other letters or numbers that refer to something specific to the item. 

In general, here’s what those stickers are supposed mean:

Four Digit Code:  Produce with a four digit code beginning with a 3 or 4 means the produce was probably conventionally grown with the possible use of pesticides.  For example, the code for conventionally grown yellow bananas is 4011.

Five Digit Code beginning with “9”: Fruits and vegetables grown organically have a five digit code starting with a “9”.  An organically grown yellow banana’s PLU would be 94011, for example. While there may be other five digit codes found on produce, the only five digit code that is of particular significance to consumers are those that start with a “9”.

Six Digit Codes. It is not uncommon to find produce with six digit codes which may relate to the color, specific size, consumer delivery, or anything else specific to the item for the purpose of pricing at checkout. For example, the National Watermelon Association has a rather extensive list of codes that refer to watermelon variety, color, and presentation or delivery at the store. One may also find a variety of codes on avocadoes and other fruits and vegetables all of which point to pricing at the checkout.

Five Digit Code beginning with “8”:  Anything beginning with “8” is not likely to be found in the produce aisle. “8” was originally set aside for genetically modified organisms (GMO) produce (produce with genes from other organisms) but has not been used. Therefore, PLU codes will not tell consumers if a produce item is GMO. However, it is important to note, there are few GMO fresh items likely to be found in the produce aisles at this time; approval has only been made for potatoes, papaya, summer squash, and apples, all of which are not widely grown in the US.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, take a look at the labels on your produce!  Understanding what the labels and codes mean will help you choose what is right for you.

Source:
How to Decipher PLU Codes on Fresh Produce. LivingWell.
GMO Crops, Animal Food and Beyond. FDA.
Stickers on Produce. North Carolina Cooperative Extension.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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23 thoughts on “Deciphering Produce Labels and Codes

  1. 5 digit codes starting with 8 don’t exist. It was suggested but never came to pass.

  2. It’s time for the produce label makers to come up with a better biodegradable label. I see labels even on the side of the road. It’s disappointing to see one turn up when I’m shoveling out compost. Do you know any of the big companies that produce these thin plastic stickers? Owens Illinois? Who are some progressive paper companies? JT Northern Ohio

  3. Hi Jane, your point is well taken. Industry is very much aware of this problem and working on biodegradable fruit and vegetable PLU (Price Look UP) stickers. Doing so presents challenges according to industry spokespersons. The challenge that industry is spending a lot of time, effort and money trying to solve is the adhesive — finding something that is sticky enough to stay stuck to the fruit or vegetable throughout the entire supply chain. In order for something to be compostable, it has to be made out of natural ingredients — something that was once alive and is now dead. Further, every time a label ends up in the compost pile or soil, those stray stickers contaminate the compost or soil with tiny microplastics. In addition to the challenge of finding an adhesive, the adhesive and ingredients must meet FDA testing and approval for food safety. I believe the change will come in due time.

  4. I’VE HEARD THAT PRODUCE WITH THE CODE: EMP 068 HAVE BEEN RADIATED. TRUE?

  5. Good morning, I have recently come across produce stickers, that say USA/UK
    The produce manager did not have a good answer at all. I’m hoping you do.

  6. Hi Anna, I wish that I could be unlike the produce manager, but I cannot answer your question with any reliable information. Anything I would suggest would only be a guess. Hopefully in time, some information will surface as to what this designation means on the produce label. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

  7. Hi Fana, to the best of my knowledge, these numbers have meaning within a company designating a variety or growing location or both.

  8. Is there a code for the new Mrna technology that growers are adding to vegetables and/or fruit? Would it be considered Gmo (since it contains mrna/DNA) and get that code?

  9. Hello, On my Avocado stickers lately , there a phrase, actually hard to read, “not Ore grown” suppostly organic
    Mexican avocado, EMP 074, These are NOT ripening as “normal’…. any comment?
    Thanks Cindy

  10. Cindy, my understanding is that the avocado was not grown under conditions that meet the guidelines of the National Organic Program for certified organic in the US. Likely you have a small Hass avocado per the code. The EMP 074 is likely a designation of the farm or grower and is not in reference to organic certification or type of avocado. Usually the reason for avocados not ripening properly is that they were picked too early.

  11. Hi Rob, I am not sure how to answer your question. mRNA (messenger RNA) is a new area of biotechnology with researchers offering insights into the molecular mechanisms underlying fruits and vegetables for improved quality and potential grow-you-own mRNA edible vaccines or food as remedies by manipulating plants on a micro-scale–imagine eating a salad instead of getting a poke in the arm. I may be amiss, but to my knowledge, this is not currently an option; if it comes to fruition, codes of some sort will need to be determined.
    If you are referencing the claim that mRNA vaccines are in the food chain per Facebook posts, the claim has been determined to be false as there is NO evidence to support such a claim.

  12. It is over the news from doctors and attorneys fighting for food labels that disclose information and are accurate. The newest news is mRNA in all organic produce. Avacados,lemon,limes etc have all been compromised. I would be surprised that doctors or attorneys would publicly announce this if not true with what the repercussions would be.

    New color labels on organic produce. Cannot retrieve information from food label.

    The farmers sell to Bill Gates and have no idea what he is doing to our food. I know that for fact.

    How can we protect ourselves?

    Why do we not have Rob’s letter to you shown. Just your response. From October 19, 2023.

    Thank you.

  13. Kelly, Rob’s message has not been taken down; it along with a reply are both posted. I think the response to Rob should answer all of your questions–bottom line–look for reliable, science-based information.

  14. Bought today organic tomatoes from Whole Foods and discovered the label # is 694664
    What does the 6 mean?
    Can’t find an answer anywhere
    I probably should just grow my own. We are all tired of chemically treated coated spray produce.

  15. Hi Jo, as you probably know, the 4664 refers to red tomatoes grown on the vine. Like you, I can find no information regarding the the two other numbers. A number of labels have changed in the same way with the added numbers being a grower’s number or location or some other designation.

  16. Hi Marlene,
    Bought organic avocado 94046, but underneath has EMP 263, what is does EMP 263 stand for? Appreciate your time and energy

  17. I understand that Apeel(Edipeel, organipeel) is now being used on some produce: avocado, limes, lemons etc. at this point either on plants in the field or produce after harvesting. Is there a way to tell by labeling or a website that would indicate that information for the consumer as I understand that not all states require the special Apeel label to be adhered to produce. We have a number of dietary issues and need perfectly clean food. Thank you.

  18. Hi Teresa, The best information on Apeel can be found on the Apeel website: https://www.apeel.com/faq When the coating is applied to produce, the label is usually some reflection of a circular fruit with two leaves to the left. While some states may not require the label, Apeel markets with the label.
    The FDA has found the ingredients in the Apeel coating to be 100% safe to eat and environmentally responsible. The Apeel coating is non-GMO and can be used for both conventional and USDA certified organic produce. Even under strict European Union (EU) regulations, Apeel is permitted in every member country. The coating is colorless, odorless, tasteless and not easily removed so it is not necessary to wash off before use. You can use the Apeel store locator to find out if and where the produce is sold in your area: https://www.apeel.com/spoiler-alert Thank you for reaching out to AnswerLine.

  19. just bought some blue berries from walmart with produce code 57554.. cant find anywhere online what a produce code 5 digits long that begins with a 5 means??

  20. Hi Kris, it is a product source code that is part of the industry. I am unable to find information on the source of the blueberries, however.

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