Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Produce Stickers: How NOT to Spot GMO Food

Are you concerned about the known and unknown health effects of eating genetically engineered (GMO) foods, such as new food allergies and an increased risk of antibiotic resistance, among others?  Do you worry that, because these foods are engineered to withstand megadoses of pesticides, they may expose you to even more poisons than other industrially grown foods?   Do you join small, family farm groups who oppose GMOs because they give the biotech industry unprecedented power over small farmers?  Would you like a simple way to avoid GMO food products?  Join the club.

The powerful biotech industry is digging way into its deep pockets to keep you in the dark about GMO foods.  In 2002, for example, Monsanto and their biotech buddies spent more than $5 million to fight an Oregon initiative that would have required labels on GMO food products. And the industry continues to spend millions every year to deny you your right to know when you’re eating GMO foods.

But wait. A longtime internet rumor claims that there is, in fact, a way to identify fresh GMO produce at least.  GMO produce items, the story goes, have a Product Look-Up (PLU) code (the little stickers on our fresh fruits and veggies) that is five digits beginning with an 8.  Doesn’t that 8 alert us when that shiny red apple is genetically engineered?

Well, not really. The persistent myth of “PLU codes for GMO foods” is little more than an urban legend.

The PLU labeling protocol for GMO foods is voluntary, i.e. food companies can choose to identify products as genetically engineered. They can also choose not to.  As a chemical industry flack once candidly told a colleague of mine, “We love voluntary regulations, because we’re free to ignore them.”

What to Eat author Marion Nestle definitively exposed the failures of the PLU system as it pertains to GMOs. I bumped into Dr. Nestle at a conference at the time she was finalizing the book, and we chatted about PLU codes for GMOs. I told her I believed it was a myth. Intrepid scientist that she is (and as someone who knows me well enough not to trust anything I say), she looked into it herself. As she reports in the book (pp. 56-61), she found non-GMO honeydew melons at Costco with the PLU code for GMO food.  She also found several GMO papayas (confirmed by DNA testing) with PLU stickers that did not begin with 8’s.

In other words, a five-digit PLU code that starts with an 8 means a food is a GMO. Except when it doesn’t. And foods with other PLU codes are not GMOs. Except when they are.

That’s why food safety and food justice advocates continue to call for legislation requiring mandatory labels on GMO food (as is already required in Europe, Australia, China and dozens of other countries). That’s the only way consumers will have meaningful information about the GMO content of the food they buy, and for farmers to be sure they can sell their safe, natural non-GMO products.

For those who prefer to rely on the PLU codes, caveat emptor. For the rest of us, here are some tried-and-true tips for avoiding GMO foods:

Buy local: as much as possible, buy from local growers and food producers. Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm; shop at farmers’ markets; ask local markets to stock more local produce.

Buy organic: organic production prohibits the use of GMOs.

Eat a Whole Food Diet: avoiding packaged, processed foods is one of the best ways to avoid GMOs. Eat whole fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans, seeds, nuts and other foods. One exception: papaya from Hawaii, where about half the crop is GMO.

Avoid GMO Ingredients: When you do buy packaged food, try to avoid foods with ingredients from soy, corn, or canola (or cottonseed oil which could be from GMO cotton). Check the True Food Shoppers Guide for non-GMO packaged foods. Also, foods made with beet sugar may be made from the GMO beet variety. Look for products made with cane sugar, and ask food makers about their policies on GMO beet sugar (many companies have already pledged to avoid GMO sugar).

Avoid GMO Milk Hormones: The GMO cow drug rBGH has been banned in Europe, Canada and much of the world – but it is still used in some U.S. dairies. Look for organic milk and dairy products (organic prohibits the use of rBGH) or rBGH-free dairy products made from cows not injected with the drug.

Food from Animal Clones: There are no seafood, meat or dairy products from GMO animals approved for the market, but in 2006 the FDA announced it would lift its moratorium on food from cloned animals. Major dairy and meat companies have stated they would reject animal clones for their products, so it is unlikely that milk or meat from clones is widely sold. Food from clones and their offspring are also prohibited from organic food. One company has been pursuing approval to market GMO salmon for nearly a decade, and many other GMO fish species are in development, but to date approval is still pending.