How to Know If Your Fruits and Veggies are GMO, Organic, or "Conventionally" Grown and How to Significantly Reduce the
Risk of Salmonella and E. coli Infection 

by Al Swilling
SENAA International
27 December 2011

There are tons of articles "out there" on the Internet on the topic of determining which fresh produce items are genetically modified (GM), but they all seem to insist on over-complicating the issue. Some also provide false information to those who, in good faith, read their articles and rely on the author's information being thoroughly researched, accurate, unbiased, and honest. One Web site has gone so far as to make a chart of various first digits of the PLU codes (Product Look-Up codes) and what they mean. That chart is inaccurate, and misleading.

Hopefully this article will simplify the task of determining, as far as is currently possible, the conditions under which the fresh fruits and vegetables at the local grocery store are grown.

This article only discusses fresh produce. For an informative discussion of processed, canned and frozen foods, mixes, etc., please read Dr. Joseph Mercola's article, "How Do You Know If Your Food Is Genetically Modified?"

Decoding the PLU Code on Fresh Produce and Fruit

Basically there are only five things to remember when interpreting the PLU (price look-up) code on fresh produce:

  1. The produce in question will bear a sticker which has either a four or five digit numerical code known as the PLU, or Price Look-Up, code. The PLU code is a four or five digit international code that identifies specific fruits and vegetables.
    For example, 3001 is a small Aurora/Southern Rose Apple, conventionally grown; and 4152 is a Macintosh Apple, conventionally grown. PLU code 4159 is a Vidalia Onion, conventionally grown; and 4161 is a Texas Sweet Onion, conventionally grown.
  2. If the code is a four-digit code, it is "conventionally" grown, which means that the farm or orchard that grew that particular product probably used chemical fertilizers and definitely used either herbicides or pesticides, or both, in the growing process.
  3. If the code is a five-digit code, then it is either organic or has been genetically modified.
  4. If the first digit of a five-digit code (does not apply to four-digit codes) is "9", then it is organically grown. If the first digit is "8", then it is genetically modified. However, placing a five-digit PLU code on a GM fruit or vegetable is not mandatory, and some producers of GM fruits and vegetables refuse to use the five-digit code on their products. Consequently, some produce and fruits bearing a four-digit PLU code may be GM products.
  5. The use of a five-digit code with the number 8 prefix is still voluntary, and some GMO producers do not voluntarily label their products as such. Until such labeling is mandated by state or federal law, the surest way to ensure that GMOs are avoided is to buy organically grown produce that is labeled as organic. If the market where you currently shop does not provide produce that is labeled as organically grown, then find one that does.

Regardless of what other Web sites may claim, that's all you have to remember, because that is all the useful information about PLU codes that is available at this time.

Determining whether a fruit or vegetable is organic, conventionally grown, or genetically modified is not the only thing about which buyers should be concerned and informed. There are also some precautions that buyers should take before consuming any fresh produce, regardless of how it is grown.

Six Words about Salmonella and E. Coli Infections: Wash Your Fresh Fruits and Veggies

It would be remiss to mention the PLU codes and GMOs and not include some precautionary notes about two other causes of concern.

Two major concerns in addition to the growing method used to produce our food are salmonella poisoning (salmonellosis) and E. coli infections. The truth is that there is a very simple way to drastically reduce one's chances of becoming infected: Wash all produce before cooking and/or eating it, especially foods that will be consumed raw.

While all produce should be washed before eating, it is especially important that conventionally grown produce be washed to remove any pesticide and herbicide residue left on the product.

It is equally important to wash organically grown foods before use to reduce the likelihood of contracting salmonellosis or E. coli infections.

The reason why washing organic produce is so important is because the "organic" fertilizers used to grow those foods are basically compost and animal manure. Either one or both may be used.

Animal manure will definitely have some E. coli present, because E. coli live in the large intestines of all animals. It is only logical that some of the bacteria will be excreted in the animal's waste. If one of the animals that produced the manure was infected with salmonellosis, then that can also be present in the manure. Poultry and eggs are especially prone to carry salmonella bacteria. Also, the manure from poultry can contain the bacteria.

The manure from cattle that are mass produced for companies such as McDonald's and Jack-In-The-Box, which are fed GM corn almost exclusively, are hosts to an especially potent and often deadly mutant strain of E. coli–one that never existed on earth before–called E. coli 0157:H7. According to news reports and the documentary film Food Incorporated, infections caused by E. coli 0157:H7 can be fatal. One child, Kevin, a perfectly healthy child, died 12 days after eating a hamburger contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7. Others, children and adults, have suffered similar fates. If crops are fertilized with organic fertilizer--cow manure--obtained from CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), where the cattle's diet consists entirely of GM corn, the likelihood of getting E. coli 0157:H7 infection from vegetable crops is much greater.

If compost is used, it may also contain either salmonella or E. coli or both, with salmonella being the most likely, since table scraps, egg shells, eggs, scraps of poultry, dairy products, or scraps of sandwiches that contain mayonnaise are sometimes added to compost.

If food grown with organic fertilizer is consumed without first washing it, then some of the manure or compost will likely be ingested. This is especially true of mushrooms. It is suspected that most cases of salmonella and E. coli illness that make news headlines were contracted simply because the victim neglected to wash the suspected fruit or vegetable before eating it, because neither bacteria are normally associated with vegetables or fruits. It is almost a certainty that any vegetable or fruit that causes either salmonellosis or E. coli infection was grown with organic fertilizer. So-called chemical fertilizers will not contain either salmonella or E. coli bacteria, because they contain no organic materials that would carry the bacteria.

Back in the day when most people had at least back yard vegetable gardens and still had a connection with the earth–when everything was organic–it was common knowledge that fruits and vegetables were to be washed before they were eaten. Today, with most people being far removed from the source, obtaining their fruits and vegetables from supermarket shelves and bins instead of directly from the garden, that common sense precaution seems to be an afterthought, if it even occurs to the consumer at all. Most folk seem to think that because the fruit or vegetable is wrapped in plastic or polished and sprayed with wax that it's ready to eat right out of the package, even though most packaging clearly states, "wash before using".

Potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, turnips, rutabagas, and other root crops grow beneath the earth's surface and are in direct contact with the soil and fertilizing agent, whether it be chemical or organic.

In the case of vegetables such as tomatoes, squash, melons, and peppers; and leafy vegetables such as  spinach, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, or other above ground crops, the plant's fruit, leaves, and stems come into contact with the surface soil and fertilizing agent to varying degrees. Spinach, cilantro, parsley, and Romaine lettuce are likely to have some of the sandy soil and fertilizing agent on and among the leaves and at the base of the stems, especially if they are harvested close to the ground and sold in bunches. Therefore, careful washing to remove sand, soil, and fertilizer is essential.

Washing fruits and vegetables should be done under cold running water. No soap should be used, but it requires more than just quickly passing the food item under the running water and shaking off the excess water. If the fruit or vegetable's skin or surface is tough enough, a brush for this purpose may be used. For more on food safety, visit the USDA's online Safe Food Handling Fact Sheet, "Washing Food: Does it Promote Food Safety?"

After washing and rinsing your hands with soap and water, lightly rub the surface of the produce with your hands under running water to loosen and remove any soil, sand, fertilizer, or organic material from the item's surface. In the case of leafy vegetables, snip off the cut ends of the leaves with kitchen shears or a sharp knife, keeping the part that will be eaten from coming into further contact with the snipped ends. After trimming the ends of the leaves, discard the snipped ends and wash the cutting board and knife with soap and water before using them further in order to prevent contamination of the washed produce or other foods that may come into contact with the knife or cutting board. It isn't that hard to do, it only takes a few seconds, and it will significantly reduce the possibility of contracting salmonella or E. coli infection.

The Truth About "Chemical Fertilizers"

Before going into chemical fertilizers, it should be known that neither SENAA International nor the author of this article are in any way affiliated with or proponents of Monsanto or any other manufacturer of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. SENAA International and the author are, in fact, proponents of organic farming and the use of organic foods as the healthiest choice. Above all else, we are proponents of truth and accuracy. It is in the interest of truth that this topic has been added to this article.

It should also be understood that this is not intended to be a comprehensive dissertation on chemical fertilizers, and it is not a comparison of organic vs. chemical fertilizers. This is merely a brief explanation of what chemical fertilizers are and how they affect food crops and those who consume them.

When we hear the words "chemical fertilizers", we automatically think something sinister is afoot, primarily due to the horror stories about Monsanto and other chemical companies systematically taking over food production, especially in the United States. With the majority of people now far removed from the earth that sustains us and lacking in knowledge of how our food is grown, we don't really know what is meant by the term "chemical fertilizers". Whatever it is, we reason, it can't be good or good for us. The truth is, chemical fertilizers have been in use for decades with absolutely no ill effects on humans. The composition of chemical fertilizers is actually simple, and their use is not the horrid thing that some would have us believe. While organic fertilizers are better for the soil and the food crops that it grows, chemical fertilizers, when combined with adding organic matter to the soil, is perfectly sufficient to grow healthy, nutritious crops.

Miracle Grow is a "chemical fertilizer", and it produces some of the best tomatoes grown and significantly increases the yield of the plants that are fertilized with it. Used correctly, both the plant and the consumer benefit from its use. That is just one example of chemical fertilizers benefitting all concerned. Professional farmers can, I'm sure, cite other examples using other chemical fertilizers.

Essentially, chemical fertilizers consist of three basic nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (in the form of potash), listed in that order as the "N-P-K" number. An N-P-K of 10-10-10, for example, means that the fertilizer contains 10 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorous,  and 10 percent potassium. The NPK number varies with different types of fertilizer. The correct ratio of NPK to use on a given field is determined by a soil sample, which is analyzed by a Department of Agriculture lab to determine which nutrients are needed.

Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium are nutrients that are essential to healthy plants and animals, including human beings.

Nitrogen makes up approximately 78 percent of the earth's atmosphere and is an essential component of protein, which is used by the human body for cell creation, maintenance, and repair. One's nitrogen balance indicates whether or not a person is getting enough protein and whether the body is using the protein effectively. A positive nitrogen balance indicates tissue growth, typical in a healthy growing child. A negative nitrogen balance indicates tissue or muscle loss or destruction, since nitrogen is essential for growth, and therefore indicates insufficient protein intake or the body's inefficient use of protein. A zero nitrogen balance, or equilibrium, indicates a state where tissue and muscle are neither increasing nor decreasing. If a balanced diet is being followed, health is good, and daily routine remains the same, then equilibrium will occur.

Phosphorous and potassium are electrolytes essential to healthy heart, nerve, and muscle functions in humans and other animals. Obviously they are also essential for healthy plant growth and reproduction. A deficiency of either of these electrolytes in humans will cause heart malfunction, muscle cramps and failure, and problems with nerve impulse transmission, especially during periods of physical exertion and extreme heat. During hot weather, electrolytes are lost due to heavy perspiration, and electrolyte deficiency can result if not replenished.

Severe deficiency of nitrogen, phosphorous or potassium can cause death. What chemical fertilizers do, in essence, is provide these three essential nutrients to the food plants, which pass them along to the humans and other animals that consume them. Farmers who use chemical fertilizers usually plough under the plant stalks after the crops are harvested and the field rests until the next planting season. That allows the plant material to decay and put organic material back into the soil.

The drawback to using chemical fertilizers is not that they are harmful to the plants, soil, or to the consumer, because they are not. The drawback is that they do not provide the trace elements that organic fertilizers do.. The trace elements in the soil are what give tomatoes grown in Topeka, Kansas, a different flavor from tomatoes grown in Ideal, Georgia. The trace elements in the soil in Vidalia, Georgia, give Vidalia onions a flavor that cannot be duplicated anywhere else. Peaches grown in southern Georgia have a flavor that can only be approached in one other place on earth–one orchard in Spain–and it's because of the trace elements in the soil. It is said, too, that using a chemical fertilizer with too high an N-P-K ratio will bind certain trace elements and prevent their being used by the crops.

On the other hand, organic fertilizers, especially from local livestock, do contain some E. coli bacteria and possibly salmonella. Because of high ammonia content, farmers who use organic fertilizers such as cow or chicken manure usually allow it to age before using it on the fields. Aging also reduces the presence of harmful bacteria. However, there may still be some live bacteria in the aged manure. For that reason, even though the fertilizer is usually ploughed into the soil prior to planting, it is essential to wash even organically grown fruits and vegetables before consuming them. Rain, wind, and other factors can cause the organic fertilizer to get onto the surface of food crops. Retailers and farmers at the local farmers' market cannot be depended upon to wash the product before putting it in the baskets or bins for sale. It is especially important to wash root crops and mushrooms before preparing and consuming them, especially if they are to be served raw.


Further Reading

"How Do You Know If Your Food Is Genetically Modified?" by Dr. Joseph Mercola with Rachael Droege

"Washing Food: Does it Really Promote Food Safety?" USDA Web site



Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.