Cracking The Code

If you thought those little stickers on produce were merely there to speed the checkout process for the bored cashier at your local grocery store, you’ll be shocked to know that those annoyingly adhesive (more on that in a minute) stickers actually contain a wealth of information about the produce you’re about to purchase.

Known in the industry as a PLU code, or price lookup number, the digits were developed by the Produce Electronic Identification Board, an offshoot of the Produce Marketing Association. Since introducing the PLU codes in supermarkets in 1990, this produce industry trade-group has tagged more than 1,200 produce items with their labels. In fact, this coding system, which was first introduced in the good ol’ US of A is currently used in Austria, New Zealand and several countries in Europe and applies not only to produce, but also to nuts, dried fruit, herbs and flavorings. Not bad, ey?

So how do you decipher a PLU code?

The first step is to count the number of digits included in the sticker.

– A four-digit number applies only to conventionally grown produce, that is, those that were grown with chemical assistance.

– A five-digit code that has the first digit 9 pertains to organically grown produce.

– A five-digit code kicking off with the number 8 applies only to genetically engineered items, such as seedless grapes. For those of you who steer clear of GMO this is one to remember.

Beyond that, the remaining numbers, known as “retailer assigned codes,” are less informative and are typically assigned by retailers either on a local, regional or national level.

The one exception to this rule, according to some Web sites dedicated to deciphering the PLU codes, is that the codes can sometimes be used to figure out a products size. For example, a small, conventionally grown yellow onion purchased in the U.S. will bear the code 4665, while a large yellow onion will bear the code 4093. However, the numbers are assigned quite randomly and…well, if you need a number key to tell you whether you are purchasing a large or small onion in your hand, perhaps you have bigger problems!

While we’re on the topic, the folks behind the PLU codes want you to know that the adhesive used to attach the stickers is considered food-grade, but remind you that the stickers themselves aren’t edible. To that end, the group is currently considering several new methods of labeling produce, including etching using lasers (fancy!) and printing or tattooing using ink made from natural substances such as blueberry juice.

Because that’s just what we need, a vegetable with a tattoo!

To learn more about PLU codes, visit You’ll be asked to fill out four quick questions, but they don’t pertain to anything personal and appear to be more for Web site tracking purposes. If you’re still thirsty for more info on the process behind assigning the codes (or would even like to submit your own!), check this (PDF) out.

cdozo Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Genetically Modified Foods: Super Solution or Franken Future?

Safe Cooking Temperatures

How to Shop a Farmers’ Market

How to Eat Enough Omegas

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28 thoughts on “Cracking The Code”

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  1. Cool info. I didn’t know there was any relevant data to the consumer on those stickers. I’ll keep an eye out for the big “9”.

  2. per your request on recommended content. I like to know what the recommended protein intake for an athlete is. I’ve heard anywhere from 0.6 lb per “lean body mass” to 1 – 2 gram per lb of body weight.

    I also read that maximum digestible protein per meal is 50g, is that true?

  3. From my brief time working in a grocery store, I will never forget the code for bananas – 4011. Because EVERYONE bought bananas.

    And those stickers? We eat a lot of fruit, especially our sons, and for awhile I swear those stickers were part of our decorating scheme – they ended up all over our kitchen floor!

  4. Jud,

    My sister-in-law managed an Albertsons grocery store for years and said that the single biggest seller was bananas (milk was second). I had no idea.

  5. Great Post.

    Here’s my smart shopper tip:
    If your grocery store has self-checkout lanes you can pull a little trick and save some coin. When You pick out your bag of organic grapes or cherrys or any product that you have to punch in the PLU# with, find the code for the conventional product. This trick hasnt failed me yet, try it out

    1. While I’m ALL for saving money, your “tip” equals theft. I’ll continue to pay the organic price for my organic produce, thanks!

    2. And you are proud to admit to and encourage stealing because…….

  6. Hi Mark!

    I have a question…what do you know about tea leaves? I must confess i am tea addict and lately i’ve become a bit suspicious about those tea bags we consume daily .
    Those famous english brands may be more reliable (won’t give names here) , but I’m still suspicious.
    Any suggestions?


  7. Great question, Ariel. We’ll be sure to try to cover the topic in a future post. Thanks for the suggestion and check back in coming weeks for a detailed response. Cheers!

  8. Those PLU stickers are for the clerks like ”Me” to use them for check out. Each number on a fruit or vegetable tells you what department it goes threw. Clerks just look at the number of the fruit or vegetable if they forget it. I just started my job at the market and am trying to learn more about the plu’s if anyone has the sheet about it let me know. Thanks

  9. this coding system, which was first introduced in the good ol’ US of A is currently used in Austria, New Zealand and several countries in Europe

    Just a note that they’re also used in Canada (which is neither part of the US of A nor Europe). I had known about the “9” for organics, but hadn’t known about the “8” for GMOs – useful to know!

  10. I have recently come across produce PLUs starting with 3. What does this mean?
    If 4 is commercial, 8 is genetically engineered, and 9 is organic, what is 3?
    When I asked the manager, he claimed he did not know. Has anyone else come across this and does anyone know what it means?

    1. Kris,
      The blog says any four digit number is conventional, not any number starting with four. They used the number four as the starting number in the fruit examples (a bit confusing), but my guess is that conventional foods can start with any number as long as it is only four digits. Just a best guess, so your three is conventional if it is a four digit number.

    2. I just came online to find info on this very subject. The guy in my produce dept. gave me some vague response. I would like to know what PLU’s starting with 3 means, as well.

  11. Thanks, Rodney. So I guess the key is not what number a code starts with, but how many digits it has. That’s good to know.

  12. Question: Yellow Label tea ‘Lipton’ when the code reads as follows
    7 801810 71230 does the ‘8’ on the inside indicate that its a GMO product.

    1. PLU codes (only found on produce stickers/bags) are different than Bar codes, so no, the tea is not GMO.
      In fact, the 80180 portion is the “family code” part of the bar code and designates the brand (Lipton, in this case).

  13. ” … for more info on the process behind assigning the codes (or would even like to submit your own!), check this (PDF) out.”
    the link does not work for me. Is it broken? Does it still exist?