In the western world, most fresh fruits and some vegetables sport little stickers when you buy them. The stickers have a three, four, or five digit code on them, and sometimes a logo or short description of the product ("Washington organic granny smith", for example). The stickers are hard to ignore because you have to remove them if you're going to eat the peel along with the flesh of the fruit, and that removal is not always easy. Yesterday's Washington organic granny smith apple had a lump of sticky glue that remained long after the label it had been affixing had been discarded; said glue resisted the charms of soap, water, and tea towel, and insisted on smearing all over the side of my fruit while I rubbed in frustration. When bruising became visible on my apple's surface I gave up and just ate the damn thing, hoping that the glue was at least organic, like the apple it defaced.

The relatively new phenomenon of fruit labelling was encouraged and eventually required by the retail grocery industry, which had to deal with a dramatic increase in the number of fruits and vegetables stocked and sold. Cashiers found themselves faced on the one hand with a bewildering array of new and exotic produce coming down the conveyor belt and on the other by hordes of impatient shoppers wanting to get out of the store with their loot as quickly as possible. The solution? Assign each variety of fruit a unique price look-up (PLU) code that will allow the cashier to quickly access the correct price for that product on the store's computer and ring the product through. In the absence of bar codes on fruit, the fruit sticker was born.

To standardize labelling, there are national boards which designate the PLUs for each variety (in Canada it's the Canadian Produce Marketing Association). This body specifies that the item must be fresh unprocessed produce (not peeled or cut), and must be a widely recognized variety (the examples they use are apple, red delicious and apple, golden delicious). Once a PLU code has been assigned to a variety of fruit, all producers of that product are required to label their produce before it has been sent to the store.

Apparently most conventional fruit has a four digit code: banana is 4011, for example. A "9" in front designates organic produce (94011 in this case), while an "8" means genetically modified. (According to "Talking Fruit" at www.plantea.com/genetically-modified-foods.htm. My organic granny smith does sport a "9".)

I suppose fruit stickers make sense for retailers, but they can be the bane of shoppers who experience trouble removing them. I am not the only consumer annoyed by stickers on fruit. And our resident professional chef points out that they are even worse in commercial kitchens. "Nothing irks me more than needing to poach a tray of peaches in a rush - but having to deal with the pesky stickers first," he says.

What to do?

You could just peel the fruit, removing the offending item, but if it's a fruit you want to leave unpeeled, try running it under warm tap water first to soften up the sticker. Then gently ease a fingernail under one edge of the fruit sticker and try to remove the whole sticker in one movement. (Nailbiters are discriminated against.) But look closely at the stickers: sometimes they have a little unsticky "handle" that you can grasp and pull. Be careful: if only the middle of the sticker comes off, you'll have to worry off the remaining side strips separately, irrevocably bruising your fruit. And be especially careful with soft fruit like pears and nectarines; if the fruit isn't perfectly ripe when you get it home, it's advisable to pull the stickers off right away and let the things soften at their own speed; removing stickers from soft ripe fruit just tears the skin off.

Lometa tells me that some people collect fruit stickers, sort of like postage stamp collecting. I'd like to meet one of these people, not because I share their passionate obsession, but because I'd like to learn their tricks for easy and entire fruit sticker removal.

www.geocities.com/jhculbert/PLU/pluindex.htm lists American PLUs.
www.cpma.ca/en/industry/pluapp.pdf has an application form for new Canadian PLUs.

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