Cracking the Code

(Memphis) Most folks will say they can tell how fresh produce is just by touching or looking at it. However, if you look a little closer, you can see something else.

That tiny code on the labels that grocers use to ring up produce actually provides a window into the world of where your fruits and veggies come from.

“Those numbers have special meanings embedded in them,”says Dr. Pratik Banerjee, Assistant Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Memphis.

The numbers on the labels explain how the produce was grown. Four digits mean they were grown conventionally, as in, with herbicides and pesticides. Five digits tell a different story.
Those starting with a “9″ are organic. An “8″ at the beginning indicates the produce was genetically modified.

“That particular product has been modified from its native version,” explains Dr. Banerjee.

Experts say this is mainly done for pest resistance.

There’s currently a big, national debate about the safety of genetic modification.

Right now, there are no mandatory labeling requirements for GM products in the US.

Grow Memphis Executive Director Chris Peterson says the bottom line for most consumers should be education.

“We should have a right to know whether something was grown with pesticides, whether it was grown without, whether it’s genetically modified, ’cause it’s what we’re feeding ourselves and our kids,” says Peterson.

Dr. Banerjee’s background is in food safety.

He says the numbers provide good information, but it’s not the complete picture. “What matters most is that, how the food is handled at the consumer, and at the retail store and even during production.”

Shoppers we talked to say cracking the code won’t likely change their buying habits, but just being informed allows them to make a more educated decision.

If you really want more information about where your produce comes from, it’s best to ask.