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Of Pesticides, Produce and PLU Codes

Posted in Food Policy,Food Safety on October 3, 2018

How many of us have taken our chances with something? Does it extend to your purchases of food? I would have to say most likely not. We check expiration dates, sell by dates; we visually examine food for signs of mold or bruises, or even bulging cans, which can indicate possible contamination. We hear about food product recalls and/or outbreaks and are vigilant about avoiding those foods. What can help us? The PLU Code of our food.

Pushing my cart happily through the grocery store (because I really don’t mind grocery shopping due to my love of all things culinary) I choose my produce selections for the week. I never gave the little stickers on most produce much thought, thinking they were just indications of the prices. That was until I came across an article that describes just what kind of information those same stickers contain.

The PLU Code, and How it’s Used

The PLU code is known as the Price Look Up and helps your friendly cashier identify what it is that you’re buying. But it doesn’t end there, as the PLU code can help you identify just where your produce originated and how it was grown.

  • Four Numbers: Only four numbers indicates that the produce was traditionally grown. That means pesticides were used. Those numbers refer simply to what kind of vegetable or fruit that you’re buying. For example, all bananas are labeled with a code of 4011.
  • Five Numbers: Five numbers that start with an “8” indicates that the item is genetically modified, or GMO. GMO foods are tampered with, meaning the produce was created in a lab and is not found in nature (just like all the photo-shopping of those gorgeous models in magazines…nope…not found in nature at all). So, as an example, a GMO banana would be 84011
  • Five Numbers (with a 9): Five numbers starting with a “9” refers to organically grown produce, so an organic banana would be

The most important number, of course, is the one that precedes the other letters and numbers as a guideline to how your produce is grown. However, if you’re really curious about knowing the numerical codes and letters of your apples, oranges, green peppers, etc., you can refer to the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS). This organization is composed of produce associations from around the world, and its objective is to “improve the supply chain efficiency of the fresh produce industry through developing, implementing, and managing harmonized international standards.”

“The Dirty Dozen” and “The Clean Fifteen”

One of the most critical ways that we as consumers can safeguard our health and make informed decisions is to adapt a proactive state of mind when it comes to choosing any type of food that we purchase. This naturally extends to our topic of produce, and whether or not the use of pesticides on such crops is sufficiently important to our decision. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that advocates for living a healthier life through healthier choices through research and civic action.

According to this website, there is a list of produce products that exemplify the best and the worst in terms of pesticide application and it is as follows:

The Dirty Dozen

  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Celery

Strawberries clearly top this list with an average of almost eight different pesticides per USDA sample (all other produce had an average of two per sample). Strawberry growers utilize some types of poisonous gases, and strawberry fields are drenched with chemicals meant to sterilize them before planting and are meant to kill every pest, weed and virtually every living thing that exists in the soil. What is equally as mind-boggling is that the USDA strawberry tests revealed that 90 percent of the samples had detectable residues of at least one pesticide. According to the researchers at EWG,

“The EPA’s tolerance levels are too lenient to protect public health. They are a yardstick to help the agency’s personnel determine whether farmers are applying pesticides properly. The levels were set years ago and do not account for newer research showing that toxic chemicals can be harmful at very small doses, particularly when people are exposed to combinations of chemicals”.

Once upon a time, consumers couldn’t purchase strawberries save for a specific season, and they were in limited supply. During the past decades, pesticides and other chemicals that are added to improve growth have only served to make strawberries available year-round. The average American eats almost four times as many strawberries as they did in 1980: an incredible eight pounds per year.

There’s quite a lot more information relevant to pesticide usage and strawberries as well as other produce that can be found on the EWG website.

The Clean Fifteen

Differentiated from produce that is laden with pesticides are those that are not as profusely employed:

  • Avocados
  • Sweet Corn
  • Pineapple
  • Cabbage
  • Frozen Sweet Peasor

As for the amazing avocado, only one pesticide was found in a sample count of 360 avocados. Less than two percent of sweet corn samples had any pesticide residue. Again, for an exhaustive and easy-to-read description of all types of common produce and its relation to pesticide use, please consult the EWG website.

What’s the Best Way to Rid Produce of Pesticides?

As a point of discretion, even though the EWG’s aforementioned lists would have us conclude that we are eating pesticide laden produce; the Journal of Toxicology cautioned in a rebuttal to the EWG’s results that their methods were not so scientific. The journal alluded that the levels of pesticides that were detected in the “Dirty Dozen” list all fell below the acceptable limits established by the Environmental Protection Agency. It is important to consider that legal limits aren’t infallible, and that impacts on the human body are sometimes difficult to study. If uncertainty about this plagues you, you may want to purchase organic, or even make a trip to your local farmer’s market (I do, and I love their perfectly imperfect produce)!

In order to ameliorate the effects of any residual pesticides, a basic scrub with tap water will help a little, but some fruit skins such as apples that are treated with wax, will retain the pesticides despite a hard scrub. Even store-bought fruit and veggie washes are not effective, and regular soap is prone to seep into surfaces. However, according to a recent study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a solution of baking soda and water can remove even more pesticides than water alone. For example, in the experiment, Gala apples were soaked in a baking soda mixture for eight minutes and had significantly less residue. At 12 to 15 minutes there were virtually no pesticides remaining. Baking soda helps to degrade certain kinds of chemicals, but it doesn’t react with some of the other pesticides used.

By:  Kerry Bazany, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)