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Screenshot taken on June 2, 2023 of a post on Facebook

The photo shows an apple with a label that mentions the variety of fruit and the four-digit code “4173”, while the text claims that the code, when it begins with 3 or 4, proves that the fruit “had been sprayed with pesticides”. As for the five-digit codes, those beginning with a 9 indicate that the fruit is organic while those beginning with an 8 indicate that the product is genetically modified, the post further claims.

A Facebook search showed that this post had already circulated in French in 2021. 

It also appeared on social media elsewhere, including in Greece, where an orange was used as the example. AFP had already fact-checked the same claim in the US a few years ago.

Internet users have also shared variations on the claim — such as in North America and Malaysia — in which they incorrectly suggest the codes indicate where the product was manufactured. 

Faster checkout

An internet search shows that these label codes are called Price Look-Up or PLU codes.

They are used in numerous countries to classify products, update inventories and facilitate the checkout process. 

Tomatoes on a supermarket stall in France, May 31, 2023 ( AFP / JOEL SAGET)

“PLU codes are used by retail companies to facilitate the checkout process. They are used to identify bulk and random or variable weight fruits and vegetables, as well as nuts and herbs. In most cases, the PLU code is printed onto a small sticker affixed to the fruit and vegetables and includes four or five digits,” the French fresh produce trade association Interfel told AFP in an email on June 6, 2023. 

“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,” Jane Proctor, Chair of the IFPS Product Identification Committee, had previously said in an email to AFP dated December 14, 2022. 

“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 added. 

The main supermarkets have been using these codes since the 90s, but they are not obligatory or required by law. 

The International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS) randomly assigns the codes to various fruit and vegetables within the 3000, 4000, 83000 and 84000 series of numbers, according to their website

For example, 4173 is the code on the apple in the photo shared on Facebook in France. On page five of the Global and Regional PLU list, we see that the number does indeed refer to small apples of the Royal Gala variety. 

Screenshot, taken on June 2, 2023, of the IFPS website

The code on the apple label is thus consistent with a fruit and vegetable reference system whose objective is to notably apply the associated price at checkout. 

Prefix 9 for organic 

In this context, the Facebook posts are misleading. On the one hand, they provide the correct meaning of the code prefix for organic fruits and vegetables. But on the other hand, it is exaggerated in the case of non-organic produce and downright wrong regarding genetically modified fruits and vegetables, as they have no specific code and are in any case absent from store shelves in France. 

First, the four-digit codes within the 3000 and 4000 series are for conventionally grown produce, the IFPS said on its website. This means that pesticides and fertiliser were used to cultivate them. “The four-digit series denotes fruit and vegetables grown using traditional methods,” Interfel told AFP. That is what the viral online posts refer to when they hyperbolise that products whose codes begin with the digit three or four were “sprayed with pesticides”. 

Next, for organic products, a prefix — in this case 9 — is placed at the beginning of the codes, which thus become five-digit numbers. For organic products, “the prefix of ‘9’ would be placed in front of the 4-digit conventionally grown code for organic produce,” the IFPS told AFP in December 2022. It is also what it says on its website.

“For example, the PLU code 4011 refers to a banana grown using traditional methods, while the PLU code 94011 refers to an organic banana,” Interfel said. 

A fruit and vegetable section of a supermarket in France, November 3, 2022 ( AFP / CHRISTOPHE SIMON)

However, a code that begins with 8 absolutely does not mean that the fruit or vegetable had been genetically modified, experts told AFP. 

Prefix 8 extends number of available codes

Proctor 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” at retail, she added. 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. 

That is also what the French trade association says. 

In 2018, the IFPS had already indicated in a press statement that “though the ‘8’ prefix (83000-84999) was once reserved for GMO produce items, the prefix was never used at retail”.

Melons on a supermarket stall in France, May 31, 2023 ( AFP / JOEL SAGET)

Instead, 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 June 5, 2023, the IFPS online database does not yet have a product coded with the “8” prefix.

Consumers therefore cannot rely on these number series to tell them whether a fruit or vegetable has been genetically modified. 

No cultivation and sales of GMO produce in France

It is necessary to point out that “neither the cultivation of GMO fruit and vegetables nor their commercialisation is permitted in France and in Europe,” according to the website of the CTIFL, a research and development organisation for the French fresh produce sector.

Interfel, too, said that “to our knowledge, there is no GMO fruit and vegetable importation” in France. 

Only “around 100 GMOs and/or their by-products are authorised for importation and use in human and animal food,” the CTIFL said. These authorisations, delivered at the European level, concern “corn, soy, rapeseed, cotton and sugar beet” but they “do not allow for the cultivation of corresponding GMOs”. 

That is also what the French agriculture ministry explains on its website

Furthermore, EU law is strict on the matter. The regulations concerning the traceability of genetically modified organisms (No. 1830/2003) and their labelling (No. 1829/2003) foresee a system that enables the consumer to clearly identify these products or their presence in a processed product. 

The regulation No. 1830/2003 of September 22, 2003 clearly explains on page three 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”.


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