ABC’s of Labeling: Organic, Conventional, and GMO

For consumers wanting to brush up on their label reading skills, don't overlook the important labels on fresh produce. Although the USDA Organic and Non-GMO verification project seals are easily seen on packaged foods, greater care is needed when purchasing individually packed fresh fruits and vegetables. Note these tips for careful shoppers seeking food purity.

To accurately identify and distinguish organic, conventional and GMO produce look for a small sticker on the fruit which complies with the PLU code system. PLU codes are four and five digit numbers that identify the different types of produce according to their certification status. Depending on the number sequence, shoppers can determine whether the produce is conventional, organic and or genetically engineered. This is especially important as more and more organic products and produce are finding their way into conventional food stores, where bin signs may not be accurate.

The number 9 prefix added to a standard PLU code signifies the labeling category of the produce.Conventional produce codes are four digits and generally begin with a 3xxx or 4xxx sequence. For certified organic, 9 is added as a prefix to the number, making it a five digit code. Genetically modified produce would also have a five digit code and begin with 8. For example, the code 4011 identifies a conventionally grown (non-organic) banana, while 94011 is the code designated for a certified organic banana, and 84011 identifies the GE banana.

Without mandatory labeling, both organic and conventional codes are widely used, however GE produce codes seem to be rare. Currently the United States does not have a government sponsored food-labeling program that states whether or not food products contain GM material. However the USDA organic seal does prohibit the presence of genetically engineered material in foods carrying this label and provides consumers assurance that the produce has been grown using organic processes. Conventional produce codes do not ensure that the produce is free from pesticides, herbicides, sewage sludge, irradiation, growth hormones and other contaminants. Choose certified organic to protect your family from harmful growing and production practices.

Sticker code compliance is currently voluntary. To ensure food purity and safety, check your sources carefully by reading labels and contacting store managers, distributors, and growers if necessary. Protecting the organic standard is essential for human health, the environment, and whole planet sustainability.

Simi Summer, Ph.D. is an organic advocate, independent researcher, educator, and freelance writer. She is a strong proponent of organic consumer education and informed consumer choices.

Posted 7/6/2015