Is it really in the numbers?
Do you ever wonder what the sticker string of PLU digits represent on your produce?
PLU stands for the “Price Look-Up” code and is part of the system that assigns unique numbers to produce items in grocery store inventories. The PLU is usually a 4 or 5 digit code that describes the origin of the produce.
In an era where consumers are growing increasingly concerned about unknowingly consuming genetically modified organisms in their food, interpreting the PLU system may be a useful guide for us: in theory.
How do you decode the numbers on the sticker you find stuck to that bunch of bananas or those plump red tomatoes? All you need to know is that every produce item will typically have a 4-digit code on the sticker, which indicates it was conventionally grown, and may or may not be genetically modified. In some cases, there will be an extra digit added to the beginning – the numbers 8 or 9.
If the PLU code has 5 digits and begins with the number 9, it is said to be organic. We love 9's! However, if the 5-digit code starts with an 8, it indicates a genetically modified food item. A helpful mnemonic to help you remember might be: “Number 9 will do just fine, but number 8 won’t touch my plate."
But here is the unfortunate and frustrating rub for consumers: not all, if any, GMO foods can be identified by the PLU code, though in theory the number 8 was selected to represent the disclosure of these foods. Because genetically modified foods are not required to be labeled as such in the United States, virtually all food producers simply refrain from doing it, for fear of losing sales.
Is it really all in the numbers? No, not really. We must proceed at our own caution and understand this important distinction: just because we do not see an 8 does not mean an item is GMO free. An 8 is only a reliable source of information if we do see it. Not very helpful, is it?
Proceed with caution, be informed about what the PLU stickers do and do not mean, and if possible, stick to buying certified organic. Until labeling is required in the United States, we cannot count on the PLU code as a reliable GMO indicator.
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"If we destroy nature, surely nature will destroy us. For while we may hold dominion over nature, we do not possess its wisdom."
Get to the root. Identifying organic sources
Knowing where food in the grocery store comes from can help consumers become informed and empowered in discerning between organic and GMO foods.
Most consumers are not aware of something called COOL: Country Of Origin Labeling, which is a labeling law requiring food retailers such as full-line grocery stores, supermarkets, and club warehouse stores to indicate the country-of-origin of certain foods they carry, however this law does not apply to processed meats. In 2008, the United States Congress passed an expansion of the COOL requirements to include more food items such as fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables. This is a helpful tool for consumers because it gives insight into whether a food choice contains GMO or is organic. For example, knowledge of a country’s agriculture practices, say Argentina’s soy crops, would be a good indicator that the package of pork ribs labeled “Product of Argentina”, is likely to be festooned with GMO. Likewise, food labels with “Product of the USA” are almost a sure bet to contain GMO unless it also has an “Organic” label. So, getting at the root of the matter, we as consumers must be very aware of all labeling, or lack thereof, on the food items we purchase as this makes the difference in a GM-free diet.
Smart shopping. Local farm produce does not always mean organic produce. What questions should you ask?
There, on the roadside next to a corn field is farmer Joe’s “fresh vegetables” stand – you decide to pull over and buy a few ears of that plump, enticing corn-on-the-cob. For most of us, our minds associate words such as: healthy, natural, and organic. Feeling like we're buying something healthy for ourselves and for our family just makes us feel good.
But what we may not know is that Farmer Joe has been dowsing his corn crop with vats of RoundUp herbicide. We also do not know that he purchased his crop seeds from Monsanto and they are genetically modified to withstand the chemical assault to keep the weeds and pests away. The moral of the story is that just because produce is grown locally on a farm, doesn't mean it is organic. Intellectually, most of us know this but we can easily forget because there is something about a farm that triggers an emotional response in us that comes with promises of health, nutrition and wellness. Becoming aware of this can help us remember the unfortunate reality of today's GMO farming industry and that we must take control of our buying experience.
One of the first things you should ask when buying from a local food stand or farm is where the seeds came from and if they are a GM variety. You should also inquire about the chemical treatment that is used on the crops. Organic farmers are typically proud of what they grow and will want to talk about it. After all, they are going against the grain by rejecting the GM biotech industry that dominates farming today. If the answers are honest, specific and forthcoming, your intuition should be able to determine if you will be loading up on GMO or if you are in for a healthy meal.
You should also be sure to make a visual assessment of the harvest. That will speak volumes. Is it suspiciously unblemished, plump, and healthy looking? Contrary to how we often see them advertised or our own impressions, organic produce is typically not as appealing to the eye as are conventionally grown foods. This is mainly due to pests and non-chemical growing conditions. Looks can be deceiving. Never judge a book by its cover. The proof is in the pudding – and any other related sayings may be in order here.
If you ask questions, are informed and use that information to assess the true conditions of what Farmer Joe is selling, you can feel secure in knowing what you are consuming and enjoy the wholesome goodness of organically grown foods.
Natural crossbreeding vs. synthetic genes. Understanding the difference
Natural crossbreeding has been going on for thousands of years in agriculture and is the art and science of naturally blending plant varieties in order to produce desired characteristics in the offspring. Historically, these superior food plants were then used as a seed source for subsequent generations, resulting in an accumulation effect of favorable traits over time.
In the early to mid-19th century, Gregor Mendel, a clergyman-scientist began the structured and deliberate crossbreeding of plants to study their resulting genetic expressions. This work was the foundation to the science of genetics and became the corner-stone of the modern field of genetic engineering.
Through genetic engineering, plant species can be altered at the gene level where genes from completely different species can be spliced together. These newly created synthetic genes go on to “force” a desired expression or trait in the plant offspring. Whereas natural crossbreeding involves only those plants of the same or very similar species, synthetically engineered genes can come from completely different species – mixing plant, animal, and even human genes together for some intended outcome otherwise impossible.
Organic Certification. How it is determined
The USDA's National Organic Program regulates the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting, or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced.
The National Organic Program and the Organic Foods Production Act are intended to assure consumers that the organic food items they purchase are in fact produced, processed, and certified to be consistent with national organic standards. Overall, if you make a product and want to claim that it, or its ingredients, are organic, your final product must be certified.
How is food determined to be organic? Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides such as fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bio-engineering or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled organic, a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to confirm the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified as well.
Raw or processed agricultural products in the 100 percent organic category must have all its ingredients certified organic; any processing aids must be organic; and product labels must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel.
If a food supplier is not certified, they must not make any organic claim on the primary display panel or use the USDA organic seal anywhere on the package. If you are a farmer who sells less than $5,000 in total food product, you are exempt from the USDA regulation.
While American consumers are still denied their basic right to know what is in the food they are eating, until labeling disclosure of genetically modified food laws are passed, there are at least strict consumer assurance guidelines put in place to know with certainty that what claims to be organic really is. If a food item bears the certified organic symbol, sticker or tag, you can trust that it is, but beware: if a food product only appears to be organic by where it is placed on a shelf or its display under a store sign that may say organic, be sure the certified symbol is attached to the product itself.