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Decoding the Grocery Store: What A Closer Look at Eggs and Apples Can Tell You

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LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
If you're a regular shopper at Boise Co-op, chances are you're already pretty savvy about where your food comes from and what's in it. Consumer worries about pesticides, GMOs and additives have caused a push for transparency in grocery stores in recent years. In 2016, for example, the FDA announced new nutrition label requirements, including mandates to disclose the percentage of added sugars and the exact quantities of vitamins and minerals in packaged foods. But a recent article in Southern Living revealed that there are some secrets of food labeling that even experts like Boise Co-op Store Manager Matt Fuxan don't know.

LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
Sifting through a reach-in fridge full of egg cartons at Boise Co-op's North End location Friday morning, Fuxan admitted he'd never heard of a code revealing the exact date eggs were packed. According to Southern Living, it's a three-digit number stamped next to or just below the carton's expiration date.

"This one has it," Fuxan said triumphantly, holding up a carton of Veg-A-Fed cage-free eggs. "And this one!"

Without insider knowledge, you'd probably never realize that the seemingly random set of numbers corresponds to a date. That's because they mark a day of the year using the Julian Day Calendar, which starts at 001 for Jan. 1 and runs through 365 for Dec. 31 on non-leap years. At the Co-op, the Veg-A-Fed eggs Fuxan was holding, marked 337 with a Jan. 11 expiration date, were packed on Dec. 3, 2018, according to this Nasa calendar guide. A nearby carton of Wilcox Family Farms free-range eggs was packed on Dec. 24, 2018, with an expiration date of Feb. 4.

LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
But Fuxan quickly noticed that only eggs from larger companies were coded, while cartons from small local farmers had hand-written packing dates or no dates at all. According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, that's because only plants under USDA inspection are required to use Julian packing dates, whereas smaller local companies are state-regulated. The Idaho State Department of Agriculture has strict regulations for large producers, but farmers with less than 300 birds have simpler labeling requirements, just "the individual’s name, address, phone number and the words 'UNGRADED EGGS.'”



In the Co-op's reach-in, the difference in freshness between nationally and locally packed eggs was huge. Fuxan pointed to the code on the Veg-A-Fed carton, which was loaded with eggs over a month old. 

"That indicates [it was packed in] early December, whereas these"—he hefted a carton from Jo's Ranch in Caldwell bearing a hand-scrawled date—"were packed five days ago, so they're much fresher."

LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
Not all of the produce codes in grocery stores indicate freshness, though. The four-or five-digit numbers on fruit and vegetable stickers, called Price Look-up or PLU codes, delineate between organic and conventionally grown produce. Fuxan knew all about those.

"For the most part, it's really for retailers to be able to track the product they're buying and selling," he said, "Drilling in, there's not a lot of information the consumer can really use. The biggest thing is, conventional produce has four digits ... A certain type of apple, say a Gala, would be 4012. And that organic version has a 9 in front of it. So anything that you see, any retailer, any grocery store, if there's a five-digit code and there's a 9 at the beginning, that indicates that it's organic produce."

Those codes can be handy if you'd like to double-check that you're really loading your cart up with organic food, but they're not always going to be there to help out. PLU codes aren't required by law, and small farmers who don't hip their goods across state lines often don't use stickers at all. In an article debunking PLU codes designating GMO produce, The Huffington Post reported that Produce Marketing Association Vice President of Public Relations and Government Affairs Kathy Means said PLU coding is "an optional convention for retailers and their supplier and is not designed as a communication tool for customers [emphasis Huffington Post's]."

LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
The article also called GMO codes "hypothetical"—five-digit codes beginning with the number 8 would designate GMOs in theory, but their use isn't widespread, perhaps because produce companies are wary of losing anti-GMO consumers. That's a problem Fuxan is very familiar with. He told the story of Mom's Best, a cereal brand sold at the Co-op that recently disclosed on its packaging that it contains a GMO ingredient. The backlash has been fierce even though, as Fuxan put it, the company was "trying to do the right thing."

"We're in this phase where retailers and producers and product makers are trying to decide what information to disclose and what not to," he said. "I think at the end of the day everybody wants to know what the consumer wants, but it's a dicey issue."

Looking forward, Fuxan predicted that labels will only get longer, giving worried consumers a bigger window into what they're eating.