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Musings at Costco

May 25th, 2012

I thought I was playing it safe. For years now I have bought mostly organic produce. When food produced without chemicals is not available, I carry a copy of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) “Guide to Pesticide in Produce” in my purse. The brochure directs shoppers to avoid the “dirty dozen,” which is the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables; it also lists the “Clean 15,” which are lowest in pesticides.

So today I was at Costco buying bulk items for a raw food demonstration I have later this week. Cantaloupe happens to be on the EWG’s Clean 15 list, and—since I needed a lot of them for my class—I began to load up my cart. Then I noticed something: the PLU* (Price Look Up code) on the melons was five digits. Yippee!

But then I looked a little closer at the melons I was so ready to embrace. That initial digit wasn’t a 9. No, it was actually an 8: Genetically Modified. GMO. Frankenfood. I put the cantaloupe back into the bin, and as I walked away a young couple walked up and retrieved one of the very melons I had just rejected. They never even looked at the PLU, and if they had, I am not sure they’d have known the language it spoke.

At that moment I recalled the first time I had met Jeffrey Smith, the executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology. I was wearing a “conference volunteer” badge at a welcome reception during a food safety conference. Jeffrey walked up and asked me about the cuisine being served: whether it had genetically modified ingredients in it. I had to say I didn’t know. He requested that I find out, which I did, and it turned out there was some likely-GMO corn oil and other suspect ingredients included on the buffet. Of course I had heard of GMOs before that time, but had not thought much about them. Being a vegan who eats mostly fresh raw produce, I felt as though my personal risk of exposure was fairly low. But the exchange with Jeffrey left an impression on me. He was passionate about getting an answer—perhaps even militant—in a way that I found to be educational rather than offensive. Anyway, on my way out to my car I also recalled an article Jeffrey had written in 2010, some time after my chance meeting with him. In part, it said:

“Those that run the PLU-universe figured that someday some retailer might want to distinguish between a GMO and a non-GMO for price or inventory purposes. So they created a convention of 5 digits starting with an 8, just in case it catches on. But it hasn’t. No one uses that number 8 as far as we can tell. And why would they? Most Americans say they would avoid GMOs if they were labeled.” He continued on to say that “…the great news is that there are only 4 GMO veggies or fruits at this point: papaya, but only from Hawaii and no where else; some zucchini and yellow squash, and some corn on the cob. For these, unless it says organic or boasts a non-GMO sign in the store, eating them is a gamble. It could be GMO.”

As I read that article again and reflected on my chance meeting with Jeffery, I realized that we appear to have lost a little ground in the ongoing battle for truthful and accurate food labeling, not to mention the crusade against genetically engineered foods. And then my mind went back to the couple at Costco. I wondered if I should have said something to them, if they would have appreciated the information or if I would have been perceived as a granola-head who was sticking her nose where it didn’t belong. I think about that a lot these days and not just with regard to GMOs. Like when I see parents giving their kids Mountain Dew or even when my own friends order something designated “heart healthy” off the menu that is in reality a horrible choice. Most of the time—like that day at Costco—I keep my mouth shut. I guess I just have to trust my instincts. What about you: has another person helped open your eyes (or offended you) with an unsolicited observation or impromptu lesson? Have you yourself ever been the teacher?

*PLUs—in use since 1990—are identification numbers affixed to products in grocery stores to make check-out and inventory control faster and more accurate. The code is a four or five-digit number, identifying the type of bulk produce, including the variety. Conventional produce gets a four-digit number. Organic produce is denoted by a five-digit code whose first digit is 9; an 8 prefix indicates genetically modified food.



  1. Wow- I knew about the “9” but had no idea about “8”! How helpful! I have an app on my phone that sometimes works…if there is a barcode it will tell me if the food is GMO.

    I wait for people to ask me why I do what I do. Just blurting info out has resulted in more awkwardness than enlightenment. Recently a nurse asked me, “Why do you avoid BPA?”. When I told her, she said: “Well, I guess I will die like everyone else.” Say what!?! I took that to mean she thought I was a nut. For now, I think my effort to spread the word about good clean food is best left to spending power and sharing the weirdest but most amazing recipes I can find!

  2. Jwls says:

    Awesome post! I did not know about the code & am very happy to have come across this info! Thanks so much for sharing! This will definitely help me to choose what I buy, from where & when. I had always had my own gardens for years, but recently moved & can hardly wait to get a garden up & growing! Thanks Again! Sharing your post around my social networks!