How to Identify Genetically Modified Food

To assist with pricing and inventory control, all produce is labeled with price look-up codes (also referred to as PLU code, product code, or price code).  PLU codes are  4-digit numbers.  Although the PLU code may be prefixed with a 5th digit to indicate if the item is organic, it is not a a reliable tool to identify genetically modified food since use of the prefix is optional.

PLU Codes

Conventionally raised produce has a 4-digit PLU code.  This indicates that ‘chemical inputs’ were used during production (chemical fertilizer, insecticides, fungicides, etc.).  For instance, conventionally raised honey crisp apples are labeled with a PLU of 3283.  Most produce is conventionally raised.

Organically raised food has a 5-digit PLU code with a 9 prefix.  An organically raised honey crisp has a product number of 93283.  While the 5-digit PLU is commonly used, an easier way to identify organic produce is to look for the organic label; organics are usually clearly labeled.n

The PLU code for genetically modified food is 5 digits with an 8 prefix.  A honey crisp apple that is the product of genetic engineering should have a PLU code of 83283, however since use of the 5th digit is optional, and most consumers say they would avoid GM food, producers typically do not use the GM prefix.

No US labeling of GM produce

Don’t bother looking for labels identifying genetically modified produce.  Unlike Europe, China and 50 other countries, the US doesn’t require labeling of GM food.  Some producers identify that their produce is GM-free, but any labeling on food is voluntary and unlikely to be the result of regulation; several states have passed bills forbidding local GM labeling laws.

There are more reliable ways to avoid non-GM crops:

Avoid certain GM food crops

  • The 8 GM food crops are canola, corn, cottonseed, Hawaiian papaya, soybeans, sugar beets, some yellow squash and zucchini.
  • Non-organic products that list sugar in the ingredients list, (not cane sugar), almost certainly contains sugar from GM sugar beets.
  • Non-organic dairy products may be from cows injected with genetically modified growth hormone.
Look for the Organic label
  • Certified organic produce cannot intentionally include GM ingredients.
  • Look for products labeled “100% organic” or “organic” to avoid genetically engineered ingredients.

Use a printed shopping guide

Use a shopping app

  • Download the free Non-GMO Shopping Guide app to your phone.  It provides the same useful information that is available in the hardcopy guide.

While PLU codes offer producers the opportunity to inform consumers, PLU codes should not be used to reliably identify genetically modified food.  Consumers are better off avoiding specific GM food crops, looking for the organic label, and referring to a shopping guide.

(Image: Chiquita #4401, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from Dawn Huczek photostream)