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Ready to bite into that fresh juicy apple you just purchased from the grocery store?

Wait. The sticker attached to it should be removed first.

But why have these stickers in the first place? What purpose do they serve?

For a start, the stickers are edible. Yes, you can eat them although it’s recommended that you do not make a habit of it.

If ingested, however, it will not hurt you.

The rationale behind the code found on the stickers, is simply to facilitate the checkout process, according to the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA).

“This originated in North America and it is a system to enable produce to leave the store quickly and accurately,” says Jane Proctor, Vice President Policy & Issue Management at the Canadian Produce Marketing Association.

“With apples for example, there are so many different varieties, so having codes makes it much easier to identify them and charge the correct amount.”

Price look up codes (PLUs) identify bulk and random or variable weight fruits and vegetables as well as related items such as nuts and herbs. PLUs are printed on a small label which is attached directly to individual fruits and vegetables.

The codes consist of a four or five digit number. Four digit PLUs identify conventionally grown fruits and vegetables while a ‘9’ is added at the beginning of the PLU to identify the item as organic.

For example, a conventionally grown banana has a code of 4011 and if organically grown, the PLU will be 94011.

So typically, a piece of fruit bearing a four digit code starting with a ‘3’ of ‘4’ is conventionally grown. If starting with a ‘9’, it is organic.

Genetically modified produce usually begins with a number eight.

However, according to the CPMA, the ‘8’prefix will transition to accommodate an increase in traditionally and organically grown produce.

“These codes are not meant to distinguish between different ways of growing in terms of genetically modified produce. The PLUs do not have a role in determining different growing methodologies,” Proctor said.

But if the produce is organic, the distinction needs to be clear so produce can be identified and priced accordingly.

PLUs have been used by supermarkets since 1990 to make check-out and inventory control easier, faster and more accurate.

In 2006, Canadian retailers finalized a list of Canadian nationally coordinated retailer assigned PLUs for fruits and vegetables.

The list was developed to facilitate efficient identification for fruits and vegetables sold loose/ bulk/variable weight in Canadian stores where an internationally harmonized PLU does not exist.

“Codes are universal and any country using them will pack produce with the same code. It’s not global, however, Canada, U.S.A. Mexico, the U.K., Australia, Norway South America and New Zealand do use them,” Proctor said.

“Are the codes the same? Yes and no. They are generally the same but there is a set of codes set aside and used for retailers as they see fit. Especially if it’s a new or unusual product.”

The international Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS) has launched a user-friendly app to help users source PLUs.

So, not only are the stickers edible, they are now becoming compostable also.

“The largest company manufacturing the stickers are now making them compostable. Like everything, things change, and everyone looks for ways to be more innovative.

Based in Ottawa, the CPMA is a not-for-profit organization which represents companies that are active in the marketing of fresh fruits and vegetables in Canada.

CPMA members include major growers, shippers, packers, marketer, transporters, brokers, distributors and retailers.

For the organization it’s all about including  members “from the farm gate to the dinner plate.”

For more information regarding PLUs, visit www.cpma.ca

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