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Those pesky labels on fruit

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

I've been meaning to write about these for a while now. They're annoying aren't they? The ones shown here are a selection currently in my fridge.

First off - the annoyance. They don't degrade. Really they don't and not even big commercial composters can somehow filter them out and get rid of them. So they are an increasingly major environmental problem. I confess that in the past I have sometimes not been very careful and some have slipped into the compost bin which resulted in David telling me off when he came to dig the compost in for me.

What to do about this? Well there are various experiments going on around the world. The most obvious I suppose is to make a compostable label, but I think progress is a bit slow on this, although I'm not sure why.

Already being tested out in a limited way - I think mostly in Europe - is a sort of laser tattoo on the skin of the fruit. So far so good I believe, although I think they have only tried it on big things like these sweet potatoes and coconuts - on which it is difficult to stick a sticker. The producers of these fruit and vegetables are very happy - saves enormous amounts of plastic labels and therefore money, although I think the laser machine is expensive. Anyway from an environmental point of view - good.

Second annoying thing - eating them by mistake. Will you die? Well no, and you may find that they are perfectly safe to ingest - they just pass through the system. Not that that's going to help the pollution problem any. Mind you there are plenty of people out there who think that it really isn't safe to eat them - chemicals in the product, chemicals in the glue, etc. etc. Then there's the very, very occasional disaster like somehow it getting into your lungs. It was a child - children can do all sorts of unexpected and life-threatening things. I did like this little summary of the environmental problem though.

"The sticker paradox, then, is that as we eat more of the fresh fruits and vegetables that make us healthier and maybe help us feel more environmentally tuned in, we end up leaving a trail of unrecyclable toxic doodads in our wake, and probably some traces of their chemical makeup in our bodies. In an extra ironic twist: while the sticker doesn’t convey a lot of information to you, the consumer, it does tell you whether a piece of fruit is organic — but since stickers on organic fruit are no different from any others, and since the skin of most fruit is permeable, it poisons you just a little bit in the act of telling you that you are not being poisoned." Becca Tucker - Dirt

Rather annoyingly such writers will therefore tell you to buy in farmer's markets and organic food stores, or grow your own, but as I said the other day, that't Ok if you have a lot of money and/or green thumbs and somewhere to grow your food.

The lady mentioned that the sticker will tell you if it's organic. How?

The number you see above on the Royal Gala apple tells you. In this case it tells you it's not organic. How? Well that number is what is known as a PLU number - Price Lookup number. Well yes, price lookup. We know that's the main purpose of these things. It helps the checkout chicks or boys to identify what kind of apple they are looking at. They merely have to scan the sticker - as do you if you are doing a self checkout. And just to show I'm not being superior here when referring to the checkout staff - I stupidly hadn't realised that I could scan the sticker rather than going through that fruit lookup operation on the checkout machine when doing a self-checkout.

The PLU number is an international code. There are at least 1450 of them according to the lady of Our permaculture life, who just happened to be the first website I looked at when seeking information. Those numbers are assigned - almost randomly by the International Federation for Produce Standards. And that is worth contemplating a bit. There is an international organisation that any country in the world that produces fruit and vegetables and which uses supermarkets, presumably is part of. If everyone - including Jews and Arabs in the current context - can come together over giving a number to a particular kind of apple, then why can't they agree on more important things? I'm sure there could be lots of arguments about what number to give to what.

The PLU stickers by the way supposedly date back to 1990 though I would have said it was rather more recent than that.

But back to the code. Here is a rundown:

  • If it has four digits then it is conventionally grown

  • If it has four digits and begins with a 6 then it is precut

  • If it has five digits and begins with a 9 then it is organic

  • If it has five digits and begins with a 3 it has been electronically pasteurised - i.e irradiated

  • There was one that had five digits and began with an 8 which signified that it had been genetically modified. But apparently this has been discontinued, and anyway, so they say, genetically modified fresh produce is not allowed in Australia - either grown here or imported.

Here's the rub though. I don't think the 9 for organic is definitive. It might not actually be organic. Mind you, here in Australia anyway, if it's organic it will be clearly labelled as such - it's a big selling point - and there are rules about saying something is organic.

And those numbers are sort of random as this little sub-section shows:

  • 4015 is a small, red delicious apple.

  • 4016 is a large, red delicious apple.

  • 4167 is a small, red delicious apple grown in a specific region of the US.

  • 94015 could be used for an organically-grown, small, red delicious apple.

If this kind of thing really grabs you, you can look the codes up on the PLU code database

As to the barcode - well this is a GS1 data bar which theoretically can also include things like expiry date and batch numbers, but actually probably only has the producer and the item - 9 digits for the producer, 3 for the item - encoded within it. But even this, of course, helps the supermarket with their inventory control.

Well that's what barcodes do. Did you know they were first invented back in 1948 - not in their present form of course? I found this timeline on the Trackabout website, which gives a brief rundown.

Now, of course, we have QR codes too. And this morning I was good and used one as I went for my Italian lesson, but I'm not very good at using them in shops.

Barcodes are sometimes just part of the packaging of anything we buy or use, but sometimes they also are plastic little stick-on labels, although somewhat easier to dispose of as they are not quite as flimsy or as firmly stuck on to the edges as the stickers on fruit are.

Inventory control is what it's all about really. And this does save time, money and space. If you can accurately work out how much you need to fill your shelves, then you don't need as much space to store stuff you might need. You only need to store the stuff you really do need. And it has created a whole lot of new industries - I'm guessing, for example that Trackabout who created this very useful little history of the barcode, make barcode readers - probably barcodes too. Old industries die, new ones arise.

And last of all to cheer us all up after all the environmental doom and gloom about these things here are another two things that demonstrate human quirkiness. Yes I think that's all I can call it.

First of all there are the collectors. There are people out there who collect these things and have amassed vast collections, some of which have become rare and desirable. I find the collecting thing really interesting. I mean at some point in our lives we have probably all collected something. Stamps, shells, rocks, Barbi dolls, cookery books, tools, barbed wire, the blue or grey patterned paper inside window envelopes. You name something and somebody collects it. And if enough people collect the same thing, then you eventually end up with value. I remember as part of my library training learning that it was the ephemera of life that eventually became valuable because these are the things that are thrown away. With the stickers some people are just collecting for the sake of collecting as it were, just trying to get the biggest collection, some are collecting a particular kind - all banana stickers perhaps, and some are collecting for the tiny artwork on the stickers. Here are some examples of that. The apple one, or a version of it is on my apple at the top of the page. It was so tiny I could hardly make it out. You'd need a magnifying glass at least to see it. The version shown below is just the top part of the whole sticker.

Not every label is a work of art, or at least good design of course. Some, like the plum at the top of the page have no picture at all - just the name of the product, the PLU number and the name of the company. And where it comes from. I forgot to mention that they always have place of origin on the label too.

And finally some people actually make art using the stickers! This one is rather wonderful really. I think there was an exhibition somewhere in England. It looks a bit like embroidery.

Useful but not good for the environment and really, really annoying, but still with useful information, makes checking out easier and sometimes has almost hidden little works of art. A tiny package with a lot of meaning.


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