Do fruit stickers have a code that can mean they are "sprayed with pesticides?" No, that's missing context: A vice president with the International Federation for Produce Association clarified that such numbers only mean that the fruits were grown conventionally, which may or may not include pesticide use.
The claim appeared as a post published on Facebook on September 1, 2022. It opened:
Do you know what those (mostly imported) fruit stickers mean? Very important information, I hope you can take advantage of it. If it has 4 digits and the first digit is 3 or 4, it means that this fruit has been sprayed with pesticides, it must be washed well before consumption.
This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:
(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Fri Sep 2 18:56:00 2022 UTC)
The image appears to be of a Royal Gala apple with the numeric code #4173. The caption under the photo continues:
If the number of digits is 5 and the first digit is 9, this indicates that this fruit or vegetable is organic (and is considered the best type)
If the number of digits is 5 and the first digit is 8, it means that the fruit or vegetable has been genetically modified, and this is the most dangerous thing at all.
Your health is priceless.
Ed Treacy, vice president of supply chain and sustainability with the International Fresh Produce Association, told Lead Stories via email on September 2, 2022, that the claim about the three or four leading digits was incorrect, saying that a code that starts with the number three or four only "indicates the product has been grown conventionally." He went on:
Not all conventionally grown product has been sprayed with pesticides. Some conventionally grown and organically grown crops have pesticides applied to them.
Treacy also said that the claim, "If the number of digits is 5 and a first digit is 8, it means that the fruit or vegetable has been genetically modified, and this is the most dangerous thing at all" was false. He explained:
Incorrect, the number ranges 93000 - 93999 will be used for conventionally grown product. The number ranges 94000-94999 will be used for organically grown product. These number ranges will be used once the 3000-4999 and 93000-94999 ranges have been all assigned. Currently, there are 478 codes in each of the 3000-4999 and 93000-94999 ranges available to assign.
The United States Department of Agriculture told Lead Stories via email on September 2, 2022, that the International Federation for Produce Standards "governs PLU (Price Look Up) codes." The IFPS website notes that the coding system is not required by a government agency:
The PLU coding system is voluntary and not mandated by any governing body. There are currently over 1400 PLU codes issued for fresh produce and produce related items.
According to the IFPS, "the 4-digit codes are for conventionally grown produce," which is not organic but may not always contain pesticides.
"Conventionally grown" is described on the USDA website:
Conventional farming is the use of seeds that have been genetically altered using a variety of traditional breeding methods, excluding biotechnology, and are not certified as organic.