A PLU sticker and barcode can be seen on a watermelon for sale at a grocery store in Fairfax, Virginia ( AFP / PAUL J. RICHARDS)

Product codes do not identify genetically modified produce

Copyright AFP 2017-2021. All rights reserved.

Social media posts claim product codes indicate if produce has been genetically modified. But the codes mainly serve to control inventory and speed checkout, not as regulated labeling guides for consumers.

"Want to know where your food and/or products come from?" asks a June 22, 2021 Instagram post

Identical posts, claiming to explain how to read the barcodes and PLU stickers found on products and produce, were shared and liked hundreds of times on Facebook and Instagram in June 2021. 

Screenshot of an Instagram post taken on July 1, 2021

But the product labels do not work as described in the posts. 

Every company that wants to create a Global Trade Item Number to uniquely identify products through barcoding must register for a company prefix. The three-digit prefix is determined by the country in which the company is located, not where the product was made, according to GS1 US, a non-profit organization that issues company prefixes for barcodes.

"The company prefix does not determine the country in which a product was manufactured -- it only indicates the country where the company prefix was obtained," Shannon Sullivan, senior director for public relations at GS1, told AFP.

This list details the prefixes assigned to different countries, but says: "Note that since GS1 member companies can manufacture products anywhere in the world, GS1 prefixes do not identify the country of origin for a given product."

PLU stickers

Price Look-Up or PLU codes are used in many countries to make check-out and inventory control easier, faster and more accurate.

Major supermarkets have used PLU codes for produce since the 1990s. They are an industry standard, but their use is not mandatory or required by law.

The numbers are assigned by the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS). They are randomly assigned within the 3000, 4000, 83000 and 84000 series of numbers, according to the IFPS website

Contrary to the claim in the social media posts, the numbers will not reliably tell consumers if an item is genetically modified. 

In a 2018 statement, IFPS said: "Though the '8' prefix (83000-84999) was once reserved for GMO produce items, the prefix was never used at retail."

This was confirmed by the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), a US trade association that represents companies working in the fresh produce supply chain. It says on its website that with an increase in varieties of fresh produce items available to the global market, more prefix codes were needed

Wendy Logan, a manager for supply chain efficiencies at PMA said: "The PLU codes beginning with eight (8) will be reserved for use when the current range of 3000–4999 has been exhausted."

Codes starting with five, six or seven are reserved for non-produce commodities.

Logan also confirmed that the posts are correct that the PLU code for organic produce will begin with the number 9.

For consumers concerned about genetically modified products, the US the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law requires the disclosure of foods that contain detectable amounts of genetic material. A list of such foods is available here or the product may bear a bioengineered symbol.

Screenshot taken on July 1, 2020 shows bioengineered logos from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service

AFP Fact Check previously examined similar misinformation about the barcoding system in posts urging people to buy Canadian or American products or to boycott Israeli products.