How to Tell if Produce Is Organic in 2 Seconds Flat

If you’re unsure about the nature of supermarket produce, here’s the giveaway.

Close-Up Of Hand Holding Bananas
Darren Boyd / EyeEm / Getty Images

Some people have strict standards about eating organic fruits and vegetables; others may want to choose the organic option for conventional produce items with higher pesticide loads. Either way, supermarket produce sections are often poorly labeled or in enough disarray that knowing what was grown in which way can be challenging. If either of these fates has ever befallen you, meet your friend, the PLU sticker.

The Organic Look Up

PLU (or Price Look Up) codes are the 4- or 5-digit numbers on produce stickers that supermarkets have used since 1990. They represent a globally standardized system implemented by the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS), a global group of national produce associations. While the organization's long-term objective is to improve the supply chain efficiency of the fresh produce industry, consumers can glean information from the codes as well.

The PLU number indicates produce items based on several factors such as commodity, variety, growing methodology (e.g., organic), and size. The IFPS assigns numbers after rigorous review at both national and international levels.

An Easy-To-Use System

Organic pear

The system is based on 4-digit codes within the 3000 and 4000 series. The numbers are assigned randomly; each digit does not imply anything specifically, just an overall identification number. For example, a small Fuji apple has the code 4129, while a large Fuji apple has the code 4132.

At the supermarket, that may not be so helpful in and of itself until you know this:

If the 4-digit number is preceded by a 9, it indicates that the item was grown organically.

So, that 94416 in the photo above? An organic large Anjou pear; a conventionally grown large Anjou pear would be 4416. So any 5-digit number that starts with a 9 identifies the produce as organic.

At one point, the 4-digit number preceded by an 8 indicated a GMO product, but that system was discontinued because, according to the IFPS, those PLU codes never made it to the retail level anyway, and the organization needed more digits to assign for incoming code requests.

The Benefits of PLU Codes

The PLU codes can be helpful to consumers in a few ways. Primarily as an easy way to identify conventional versus organic produce at the market. (Although a governmental agency doesn't regulate the coding, IFPS has a lengthy review process, and accuracy is essential for the retail industry.)

But they can also come in handy when you get home and aren't sure what variety of something you may have purchased. What in the world was that perfect pear? Just type in the sticker's code in the IFPS database.

All of this said, if you shop at a farmers market, produce there will not be wearing a sticker. But you can also find out in two seconds whether or not the item is organic. Ask the farmer, and they'll tell you much more than a sticker can.