I am not sure I can be entertaining while talking about bar codes, those black lines and numbers affixed to anything we buy and that we rarely pay attention to. And why should we? It turns out that for the confused food shopper, they might be very helpful.

My brief stint in a bookstore taught  me that glancing at a barcode, without actually holding a book, could provide me with useful information such as if a title was a hardback, a paperback or a mass market. The same applies to produce, albeit with a different range.

Recently there has been much debate about genetically modified foods – the FDA has deemed them safe and furthermore decided that we, as consumers, didn’t have the right to be informed if we were buying, say, corn flakes made with genetically modified corn or a combination of. In Europe, anything genetically modified is somewhat clearly stated on the label. But fruit and vegetables are harder to tell apart. Unless you familiarize yourself with barcodes.

If a fruit or vegetable is not itself labelled, the bin where you pick it up from will be. Most of your run of the mill produce (ie anything non organic and grown with the use of pesticides) will have a barcode with the first digit always a number between 1 and 7.

Organic produce’s barcode always starts with a 9 (or 09) and genetically modified with a 8 (or 08). These classifications are the product of international negotiations and apply to most of the industrialized world.

Not too hard to remember, even for a ding bat  like  me.

I am not advocating genetically modified food is bad for us – I am certainly in no position to judge but neither is science. Should there be long-term consequences, we will not know for a long time to come. In the meantime, I just want to be able to make an informed choice.





Filed under food


  1. Nilde

    Grazie! I think it’s our right –and our duty,– to be informed in our food choices.

  2. silvia

    it’s simply safer not to buy them (genetically modified food), you’ll never know … go figure what the experts could reveal on this issue ten years from now or less!

  3. minni

    I buy grape tomatoes that don’t say organic on the packaging but the barcode
    is 0 99495 65585 7 ….I’m assuming their organic by the barcode…but it does not say organic anywhere on the package. No little USDA symbol.
    I am guessing it is because to get an USDA organic license is so expensive
    (I’ve heard $15,000 a year) small producers can’t afford it and often don’t but since the product is in fact organic, they use the barcode. Does anybody know for sure?

    • Hi Minni,
      Interesting question. I did a brief search for you on the FDA website. For a product to be allocated an organic barcode, the fruit or vegetable must be certified as “organic” by the FDA (other organic certifications will only get a regular barcode which might mean a farm, as you said, might not want to go to the expense and bother of being certified by the FDA but it’s certified by other bodies).
      So, if that is the case, why would a producer go through the trouble of getting an organic barcode but not advertise it??
      The only possible explanation I came up with is that each country has a barcode number that indicates the product’s origin. The US’ is 99. Could it be that all it means is that your grapes are US grown? Maybe. I couldn’t untangle the riddle any further – more proof that label reading, barcode decoding and all our good intentions are sometimes for nought.

      • Minnie

        Well they are from new jersey but how is one to know if the first numbers are the country code or the organic code. If its an organic product from the USA
        how would that be indicated in the barcode? It’s so confusing, perhaps by design. I have seen USDA organic symbol on produce from other countries where the barcode does not start with 9. So I guess the first numbers in the barcode are the country codes, which once again leaves me in a quandary as to why they say organic products start with a 9.

    • Daisy

      Good Question….I did some research and found twelve numbers are UPC codes and the four to five numbers are PLU numbers. So your grape tomatoes have twelve numbers 0 99495 65585 7 which means that is a UPC code not a PLU code.

      Check out website and it will explain it better.

      Labeling Codes
      PLU (Product Look-up) code
      This was developed by the International Federation for Produce Coding (IFPC), an affiliate of the Produce Marketing Association. This particular website requires you to answer four non-invasive questions in order to gain entry to their 55-page listing for the various numbers assigned to foods from around the world. It also includes the criteria for application of a PLU number, which consumers may also find interesting. A complete list of the codes can be seen here.
      IFPC is a world-wide coalition of fruit and vegetable associations that joined together in 2001 to introduce a global standard for the use of PLU numbers. It should be noted that PLU codes are not part of a regulatory system so there are no requirements that state grocery stores must use them. It is solely for their own convenience if they do.
      UPC (Universal Product Code)
      This is not the same as the PLU code. The UPC symbol is a 12-digit bar code which originated with the UCC (Uniform Code Council). It was created to help grocery stores keep better inventory, as well as speeding up the checkout process. The UPC code is used for such food items as cans that come in identical units, while the PLU code is assigned to items that need to be weighed or come as “bunches”.
      UPC numbers consist of two parts:
      o a machine-readable bar code and
      o human-readable numbers
      The first 6 UPC numbers indicate the identification of the assigned manufacturer. The next 5 digits are item numbers. The twelfth number is called the check digit which allows the scanner to determine if the other eleven numbers have been used correctly or not.

  4. Thank you Daisy. You couldn’t have been more informative

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