Fruit and vegetables labelled with a five-digit product code starting with “8” have not been genetically modified, contrary to what has been claimed in posts shared hundreds of times on Facebook since December. While it is true that the prefix “8” was initially intended to label transgenic produce, the International Federation of Produce Standards (IFPS) – which is responsible for establishing Price Look Up (PLU) codes for fruit and vegetables – has never used it in this way. Product codes beginning with 8 will be used to designate new products in the near future. Under Greek law, products containing genetically modified organisms – or “GMOs” – must be clearly labelled as such at the point of sale.
“You often see stickers with numbers on the fruit. (…) If there are 5 digits and the first is 8, then it is genetically modified, i.e. transgenic (…),” reads a picture shared on Facebook on December 11, 2022.
According to the text, when the label “has 4 digits and the first one is 3 or 4, it means that the fruit has been sprayed with pesticides. If it has 5 digits and the first number is 9, then it is organic”. Below the text there is a picture of an orange with a sticker bearing the number “3108”.
However, the claim is misleading. While five-digit codes starting with “9” do, in fact, indicate that a product is of organic origin and four-digit codes indicate that a fruit or vegetable was grown in a conventional way, a code beginning with “8” does not indicate that the product has been genetically modified.
PLU stickers do not indicate GMOs
A look on the main search engines revealed that the series of numbers on the sticker in the image is indeed a Price Look Up or PLU code.
PLUs are assigned to products, such as fruits, vegetables or nuts, by the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS). They have been in use since “1990 to make check-out and inventory control easier, faster and more accurate. PLU codes are used to identify bulk produce (and related items such as nuts and herbs)”, writes IFPS on its website.
The codes are randomly assigned within the 3000 and 4000 series. And once those are exhausted, they are assigned within the 83000 and 84000 series. If you search the list of IFPS’ PLU codes for the number “3108” visible on the fruit shared in the Facebook post, you will find that it is an orange of the variety “Valencia”.
In an email to AFP dated December 14, 2022, Jane Proctor, Chair of the IFPS Product Identification Committee, explained that “at one time, the ‘8’ was designated as the number to add to any IFPS PLU to indicate that the item was a GMO fresh fruit or vegetable”. However, it “was never used,” she said. Because there are not many GMO fruits and vegetables, and because their production methodology does not affect their price, there was no need for a specific label, Proctor explained.
Similarly, in a press release published in 2015, the IFPS wrote that “though the ‘8’ prefix (83000-84999) was once reserved for GMO produce items, the prefix was never used at retail”.
As IFPS was concerned that the 3000 and 4000 series numbers would eventually be used up, “it was determined that the ‘8’ as the leading 5th digit would be used going forward to extend the amount of numbers available for assignment as new items are introduced to the market”, Proctor said.
So when the 3000 to 4999 series have been exhausted, new product varieties will be coded with the 83000 to 84999 series. As of December 16, 2022, the IFPS online database does not yet have a product coded with the “8” prefix. The code “4961” is the last code visible in the database. It is a variety of mango.
Proctor explained that “the PLU system is one developed to assist retailers at the Point of Sale (POS) to ensure that product sold loose, bulk, unpackaged could be accurately identified at POS and that customers paid the correct amount for the item”.
“Without a numbering or scanning solution, checkout/POS clerks would need to make a decision on which variety of an item they were seeing, including if it was organically produced, which is, of course, extremely difficult, if not impossible to do, visually,” she said.
Proctor said that the IFPS has no information about the usage of PLU codes in Greece. “But that does not mean that consumers will not see the little stickers with PLUs in Greek produce departments.”
According to Christos Kolios, president of the National Interprofessional Organization of Kiwi (EDOA), PLU codes are indeed used in Greece. But “it depends on the retailer,” he said told AFP by phone on December 16, 2022.
“Sometimes, the big retailers will repackage the product and do not need the sticker with the code. For exports, retailers in large countries like China want the stickers with the PLU code every time.”
Contrary to claims made on social networks claims, a code beginning with 8 does not therefore signify that a product has been genetically modified.
But as IFPS explained, it is true that a code beginning with 9 indicates an organic product: “The prefix of ‘9’ would be placed in front of the 4-digit conventionally grown code for organic produce”, it said. In the case of the orange in the picture, for example, its code would be 93108.
The IFPS does not say on its website whether a four-digit code (3000-4000) specifically indicates a product that has been “sprayed with pesticides”, as the social media posts claim. But being sprayed in this way would mean that a product is not organic.
GMO labels in Greece
Asked about GMO labelling in Greece, the Ministry of Rural Development and Food told AFP on December 14, 2022, that it “applied the European legislation on the matter, that is to say the regulation No. 1830/2003 of the European Parliament and the Council, of 22 September 2003″.
The regulation, available in Greek here and in English here, clearly explains on page 3 that “operators shall ensure that for pre-packaged products consisting of, or containing GMOs, the words ‘This product contains genetically modified organisms’ or ‘This product contains genetically modified [name of organism(s)]’ appear on a label”.
The same regulation is available on the ministry’s site here. It is not the same as a PLU code.
Other legislation regarding GMOs in Greece is available here, on the website of the Ministry of Rural Development and Food. Two GMOs are banned from sale in Greece, a type of flower called “Solanum toberosum” (ΕΗ92-527-1) and a type of corn that has the modification MON810.