One night many years ago, I came home to find my dad pouring over hundreds of fruit stickers with a magnifying glass.
We use to put them on our fridge, adding some colour to the dull white metal block. It was a decades-long tradition.
According to him, there appeared to be a significant amount of prime numbers and the digits were always the same per item. My dad was so entranced, he wrote a multi-paged poem called The Number Of the Fruit, which was a satirical piece on a committee meeting threatened by war, who decided on universal codes for fruits and vegetables to save the world.
They tell us that the Universe
Is stitched together by numbers,
But who the hell’s responsible
For those digits on cucumbers?
The numbers on our fruit are called PLU – short for product look up – featuring a four or five digit number that lets cashiers know what the product is and much it costs.
PLUs began in the mid-1980s and as their use grew, the numbers became standardized by 1990 under the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS).
There are currently more than 1,400 codes in use.
The four-digit numbers that begin with a three or four mean the product was grown conventionally. The five-digit combinations start with a nine, meaning it was grown organically.
Numbers that started with eight use to mean the item was genetically modified (GMO), but that was dropped several years ago as the designation did not impact price.
Whether you’re buying small pink lady apple from Save-On-Foods in Revelstoke, a shop in Oregon or a market in France, the PLU is the same (4128).
It’s the same for bananas (4011), passion fruit (3311) and pinkerton avocados (3080).
“You see,” he said, “if Golden Delicious
Are always forty twenty one;
The World will feel a brotherhood,
So blowing it up won’t be fun.”
When a new variety of fruit or vegetable is created, the grower or manufacturer can apply for a PLU. The IFPS committee meet periodically to decide which applications should be accepted and which shouldn’t. The committee even asks for letters of support from retailers.
And so it was decided upon,
With legislation raced through quick,
That fruit and veg would all be numbered
– And that would jolly well do the trick!
Folks could sleep in their beds secure;
Freedom would never again be allowed to
The world was saved – a damn good job!
By tiny numbers on trillions of stickers.
To this day, my dad still collects stickers from numbers on the fruit.