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When my GGO box arrives and I perform the weekly ritual of putting away the produce, the first thing I do is peel all the little sticky labels off the fruits and vegetables. Bar codes in the fruit bowl are not my idea of a pleasing still life, and it reminds me just how industrialized our food system is, even when we eat organic.

Known as PLU labels (for “price look-up”), these sticky little tags have appeared on individual pieces of produce since about 1990. PLU labels aren’t actually required by any government agency, but they’ve become ubiquitous because they help produce handlers and store clerks quickly identify and sort items.

The labels actually contain a lot of information for consumers too: a four-digit PLU code means the item is conventionally grown; five digits starting with the number nine means it’s organic; and five digits starting with eight means it’s genetically modified, though since the labels aren’t mandatory you won’t likely see many eights floating around.

Aside from the PLU number, the labels also specify the country of origin and the name of the grower, and they frequently include a bar code or brand logo as well. While the information they contain can help us make more informed choices about what we eat, the labels themselves are problematic for a variety of reasons.

Many people complain that removing the labels tears skin off the produce, which is especially true with delicate items like pears, peaches, or eggplants. Others folks object to the adhesives, which can leave residue behind when the stickers are removed. The FDA regulates PLU label adhesives as indirect food additives, but it’s a good idea to wash even organic produce if it came with a sticker.

The main problem with the sticky tags, though, is that most PLU labels are not biodegradable. Although some are made from paper, many more are made from plastic or vinyl that won’t break down in water or a compost pile.

Municipal waste handlers nationwide cite them as one of the top plastic contaminants of their green-waste composting programs, and water agencies say they gum up their works as well.

According to an article in EBMUD’s customer newsletter, Pipeline, “Who knew those little plastic stickers on fruits and vegetables could cause a big problem? Surprisingly, those little stickers … are washed down home drains all too frequently. They can end up in a variety of places – stuck in your drain, or stuck on wastewater treatment plant pumps and hoses, or caught in screens and filters. … Unfortunately, they can end up where no one wants them – in the bay and the ocean.”

EBMUD recommends “always removing plastic stickers and wrappers, placing them in the garbage before you wash and peel your fruits and vegetables,” and making sure the stickers never go down the drain.

The labels I pulled off my produce today ran about 50:50 — paper labels on the bananas and apples, plastic (or vinyl?) on the nectarines and peaches. I’ve gotten into the habit of tearing the labels to see which ones can go in the paper recycling bin and which in the trash, but I’m sure I miss a few that ultimately do wind up in my kitchen compost.

While there are a few folks out there who are exploring ways to make the labels more eco-friendly (I especially like the idea of labels that melt into a fruit soap when wet), there is unfortunately no real momentum in that direction.

As problematic as the PLU labels are, though, at least they can be removed. Not so with their emerging replacement. In April 2013, the FDA approved the use of a low-energy carbon dioxide laser to etch PLU codes, brands, and other information directly onto the surface of citrus fruits.

The Federal Code of Regulations, Title 21, Volume 3, Part 179, reassuringly categorizes C02 laser etching under the heading “Irradiation in the Production, Processing and Handling of Food, Subpart B — Radiation and Radiation Sources.” Section 179.143 specifically addresses the requirements for the C02 laser etching of food.

So far, the laser etching technique has only been approved for use on citrus fruits in the United States, but testing is also being done on tomatoes, avocados, garlic, and other produce items. The European Union, usually quite conservative in such matters, has gone further, already allowing it on citrus, melons, and pomegranates. It is also permitted on various produce in New Zealand, Australia, Asia, South Africa, Central and South America, Japan, and Canada.

Online, there are a gazillion photos of etched cucumbers, squashes, tomatoes, kiwis, apples and bananas, and it is clearly only a matter of time before the permission widely expands to all fresh produce that can withstand the process.

The FDA says C02 etching doesn’t harm produce or make it more likely to spoil, and since laser etching can’t be removed or altered, they believe it will help officials quickly trace produce back to its origin in the event of a food-borne illness outbreak.

Whether such laser-etched produce can actually be certified as “organic” — here or in other countries — is unclear. I couldn’t find anything at all addressing this issue.

It’s true that etching produce would eliminate many of the problems associated with PLU labels and could improve food safety, but it’s even more likely that it will turn into a rampant branding and marketing tool. I can just see it now: sports team logos or the Trix Rabbit etched into the sides of watermelons and apples.

I started seeing citrus fruit with the laser tattoos more than a year ago, but I didn’t realize what I was looking at. I thought it was just ink; now I know better. It seems like there must be a better answer than tattooing our food with lasers and dyes like iron oxides and hydroxides, which are also often used in the etching process.

Sticky labels are clearly not ideal, but to me they are still better than a tomato or apple that has been hanging out at the tattoo parlor. One day soon, though, there may be no way to remove bar codes from the fruit-bowl still life — except by turning the fruit around.