Organic, Genetically Modified or Grown with Chemicals?
Here's How to Tell

The next time you are at a grocery store, here's a tip you can use to find out how the produce you're considering buying was grown: Look at the PLU code.

The PLU code stands for Price Look Up number and is part of a coding system agreed upon by the Produce Marketing Association and the International Federation for Produce Coding to establish global standards for produce.

By knowing what the PLU code means, you can quickly determine whether produce is organic or was commercially grown (using fertilizers and other chemicals) or genetically modified (a GMA food).

Here's what you need to know:

  • A PLU consisting of four-digit numbers means that the produce was conventionally grown with chemicals.

  • A PLU consisting of five digit numbers beginning with 8 means that the produce has been genetically modified.

  • A PLU consisting of five digit numbers beginning with a 9 means that the produce was organically grown.

But What Does "Organic" Actually Mean?
Thanks to labeling guidelines that were first implemented by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) at the end of 2001 as part of its National Organic Program, that answer to this question isn't as simple as you might expect.

That's because the USDA now allows food manufacturers to claim that their foods are organic if they meet one of three requirements.

As a result, today one of three different regulated labels can be found on most of produce and other foods you buy at your local grocery store. The three labels, which first began appearing on food products in October 2002, are:

  • 100% Organic: This label means that all foods on which it is found must contain only 100 percent organically produced ingredients (with the exception of water and salt). The USDA seal can be used on these packages.

  • Organic: Foods in this category must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (again excluding water and salt). However, even though as much as five percent of the ingredients used in these products can be nonorganic, the USDA seal can still be used to label these food products as well.

  • Made With Organic Ingredients: Processed food products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use this phrase, and the manufacturers are allowed to list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the products' labeling. However, USDA seal cannot be used on these packages. Nonetheless, food manufacturers can confuse consumers about such food products because the USDA still allows them to list the percentage of organic ingredients, and also to use a certifier's seal or mark associated with that percentage of organic ingredients.

  • To some extent, though, the USDA still protects consumers because of its stipulation that nonorganic ingredients (30 percent or less) in such food products cannot be genetically engineered or include other prohibited food-growing methods, such as irradiation or fertilization with sewage sludge. Additionally, food products made with less than 70 percent organic ingredients can only identify organic ingredients in the label's ingredient statement and cannot use the USDA organic seal or a certifier's seal or mark.

Critics of the USDA's organic labeling policy argue that it remains confusing, and also take issue with it because, since its inception, it prohibits the use of the transitional organic label. Prior to implementation of the USDA's National Organic Program, farmers and other food manufacturers were allowed to use the transitional organic label to signify that they were using organic methods but hadn't yet reached the three-year pesticide-free requirement.

Under the USDA's new rules, however, the transitional organic label is no longer allowed. Some proponents of the organic food movement support a transitional label, stating it can help farmers make the switch to organic methods by offering them access to a premium market. As a result, they are asking the USDA to reconsider this portion of the labeling guidelines.

So What Should You Do?
In addition to noting the numbering on PLU codes, you should also look for produce and other food products that not only contain the USDA's organic seal, but also states that the produce is 100% organic. In addition, if possible, seek out produce that is locally-grown in your own area and cultivate relationships with farmers in your areas who grow organic foods.

As with everything else to do with your health, the more informed and proactive you become in this area, the healthier your food choices will be.

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