The Traceable Fruit Label... What Does it all Mean?

When labels first started appearing on fruit, they were intended to let the consumer know who picked and packed. Like the ubiquitous Dole Banana label, every bunch had one to create brand identification but the aggravation of pulling a label off a perfect apple, the embodiment of nature's bounty, presented a unique problem. Most adhesives are not suitable for human consumption so the labeling industry had to find the perfect adhesive; FDA/EU food contact compliant, to create the perfect apple label. Made from micro-thin bright gloss paper or film to conform around curved and uneven fruit surfaces and printed with EAN, UPC or DataBar code, the new fruit labels are ideal for edible skin fruit.

Produce labeling all started back in 1949. The Produce Marketing Association (PMA) was founded for the purpose of taking advantage of new packaging technologies and the developing style of self-service grocery shopping to promote the produce business. Since then,  farms have expanded and PMA has grown accordingly. It has become the focal point of coordination in large-scale national and international produce marketing. The International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS) is associated with PMA. It assigns and administers Price Look Up (PLU) codes; those numbers on sticky labels and keeps a database of them.

But what do these little bars mean? These little product identification labels stuck on fresh fruit provide helpful information. Intended to assist the consumer make an informed choice, the codes do more than speed up the checkout in the supermarket. In fact, they identify whether fruit is grown with chemical pesticides and fertilizers or is certified organic, and even whether it's genetically modified. Consisting of four or five numbers, the scan system provides quality accountability, limits the costs involved in tracing bad products that have already been distributed, and is quite simple.

Fruit is divided into three classes: conventional, organic, and genetically modified. All four-digit coded fruit is conventionally raised. Five digit codes are simply the four digits with a single number added to the front: 8 or 9. If the first of five numbers is 9, then it has been grown to the standards defined by the National Organic Standards Board. If the first of five numbers is 8, the fruit is genetically modified.

For example, let's take a simple yellow-fleshed peach. Its code is 3116. 83116 is the code of a small genetically modified peach. 93116 is the code of a small organic peach. 4 digits: The fruit was grown with conventional methods. 5 digits, first is 8: This fruit is genetically modified, a GMO. 5 digits, first is 9: This fruit has been grown to an organic standard –check out the United States Department of Agriculture website  here and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency website here for more information on these standards.

Will the next generation of fruit label simply dissolve when the fruit is being washed? There would be no label to peel off and throw away unless you choose to peel the label off and throw it away. We should always wash before we eat fruit so, is 'wash-away' the next fruit label?

So, the next time you see a fruit label or any consumer packaging label for that matter and notice coding, you'll know that some measure of traceability is alive and well in the Food Industry!

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- Brian Weller, President of Precision Label and Tag Inc.