By Gabrielle St. Claire

QUESTION: I would like to purchase organic produce, but I'm not quite sure if it is actually organic. How will I know? R.A., via email.

ANSWER: Today, it can be quite confusing distinguishing what is organic versus conventional at the supermarket. A great way to discern if produce is USDA certified organic is to review the PLU code. The PLU code is usually found on a sticker directly on the product. If you're buying produce without stickers on the item, such as mushrooms or green beans, there should be a PLU code on the sign for the particular item.

Supermarkets have used PLU codes on produce since the 1990s to make checkout and inventory control easier, faster, and more accurate. Today, there are more than 1,400 global PLU codes that are assigned to produce and related items. PLU is an acronym for Price Look Up. A PLU is a four- or five-digit number that identifies produce items based upon various attributes, specifically, whether an item is organic, conventional, or GMO (genetically modified organism). PLU codes are assigned by the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS). Neither farmers nor supermarkets are required by law to use the codes.

How to decipher PLU codes:

  • A 4-digit PLU in the 3000s or 4000s means conventionally grown potentially with the use of pesticides.
  • A 5-digit PLU starting with the number 9 means organically grown without the use of pesticides.
  • A 5-digit PLU starting with an 8 means genetically modified.

For example, if an apple PLU code is 4011, it is conventionally grown. If the apple PLU code reads 94011, it is organically grown. If the apple has 84011, then it would be a genetically modified apple. However, labeling GMO produce with a PLU code starting with 8 is optional. Today, most companies don't use an 8 PLU code even if the produce is genetically modified, and label the GMO items as conventional with a PLU code of 4.

In addition to using the PLU code to identify organic produce, you can also look for a sticker or a sign above the produce that has the USDA organic seal. This seal can only be used on products that have been certified by the government through the National Organic Program. To be certified, products must be inspected and meet USDA regulations. Learn more about organic labels by visiting

Gabrielle St. Claire has a BS degree in Nutrition & Dietetics from New York University. She wrote this article while interning with The Vegetarian Resource Group.