Fruit stickers: colourful provenance or wasteful annoyance?
The latter, if you accidentally eat one – which seems a fairly common occurrence given the number of newspaper and web articles headlined, “are fruit stickers edible?”
Here’s why you should give a fig about fruit stickers.
Why do we have them?
Even though these little labels look kind of official and appear on (or rather, adhere to) nearly all fresh fruit sold at supermarkets or fruit and veg shops, there’s no legal or regulatory requirement for them to be there.
Food Standards Australia requires most packaged food to be labelled, but not fresh fruit and vegetables.
The stickers are part of a voluntary system governed by a global body called the International Federation for Produce Standards. That’s the body which determines the 4 or 5-digit numbers printed on the stickers.
If they’re not required, what are fruit stickers for?
You probably won’t be surprised to learn the original purpose of the produce sticker was for advertising.
The first one appeared in 1929, according to the Encyclopedia of Ephemera by Maurice Rickards and Michael Twyman. A banana import company wanted to distinguish its bananas from others in the shop so they came up with a little blue oval shaped label, very similar to the ones we see today.
Initially the stickers were used for fruits where the skin wasn’t eaten: including bananas, oranges, mangoes and avocados.
It’s thought the first person to use them at commercial scale was third-generation American cherry, pear and apple grower, Tom Mathison, who was crowned Cherry King in 1971 and Apple Man of the year in 1996. He was quite the innovator, credited with pioneering bigger, sweeter cherries and apparently the first to think of packing them in bags.
What are the magic little numbers?
The numbers on the stickers are called a PLU, short for “Price Look Up code,” which is a voluntary global system which has been in use since 1990 for categorising fresh produce.
For retailers, the PLU works like a barcode or a QR code – instead of typing in “organic bananas” or “seedless watermelon” the person at the checkout counter can punch in the digits. Some stickers incorporate a tiny barcode called a DataBar.
There are currently around 1,500 different PLU codes. And those numbers not only tell you the price but they can also tell you about how the produce was grown.
A five-digit number starting with a 9 usually means it’s organic. Four digit PLUs mean the fruit was conventionally grown, most likely using fertilisers or pesticides.
The rest of the numbers are assigned based on the type and variety of fruit of vegetable it is, and what size it is. For example, different apple varieties have different numbers: 4173 for a Royal Gala, 4128 for a Pink Lady, 3629 for a Modi and 3605 for a Kanzi … how about them apples?
And I know we’re not meant to compare apples and oranges but there are 235 PLU codes assigned to apples but only 35 for oranges.
Is there any value in fruit stickers?
A start-up called StixFresh has developed a fruit sticker for mangos, avocados, apples and pears it claims will extend the life of fresh produce.
The stickers are coated with a mixture of sodium chloride and beeswax and the idea is that the sticker works by removing the ethylene which is produced by the fruit as it ripens.
There are actually people who find fruit stickers a-pealing, and collect them – known in French as ‘Légufrulabélophile’.
Antoine Secco holds the Guinness World Record for collecting 34,500 different types of fruit sticker between 1993 and 2004.
They might be small, but the designs are eye-catching. Most have vivid colours and loud designs, and grouped together they almost look like pop art.
A lot of designs feature anthropomorphised fruit in some form, like an enthusiastic orange with arms saying “I’m easy squeezy” or a “go go mango” jogging in sweatbands and sneakers.
US fruit company Dole ran a series called “Bananimals” with designs featuring animals with various body parts replaced by bananas, like the “bananapus” or the banacorn.
In recent years the sticker has even developed a bit of a cult following – like the dedicated Instagram account by graphic designer Kelly Angood.
Art exhibition, Frutas de Diseno in Madrid recently featured 360 variations of tiny fruit stickers– stuck in a dot grid pattern on a white wall – along with fruit wrappers and crates.
Tiny pieces of polyethylene
The vast majority of fruit stickers are made of plastic, and these little pieces of polyethylene are contributing to the proliferation of plastic pollution.
From January this year, France banned produce stickers across 30 fruits and vegetables.
New Zealand is to phase them out by 2025, and states like South Australia and New South Wales have flagged fruit stickers for the chopping block as part of their banning of single use plastics.
And the plastic label doesn’t stick on by itself. The US Food and Drug Administration has a long list of substances which can be used in these glues, including various forms of rubber or polymers.
To help with removal, some labellers started including a small lift off area, called the lift-off tab.
But they’re so small … are they really that much of a lemon?
We don’t know how many fruit stickers are used in Australia each year, as most fruit and vegetable statistics are measured in tonnes rather than pieces.
In New Zealand, an estimated one billion stickers are put on apples alone, according to the country’s waste and resource recovery sector.
The Australian Banana Growers Council estimates Australians eat more than five million bananas every day – that’s nearly 2 billion every year.
So it’s safe to assume that there are billions of fruit stickers entering landfill, getting stuck in sewage systems, contaminating compost, or washing up on beaches each year.
There are alternatives in the pipeline with a few companies developing paper or compostable stickers.
Queensland banana farm, Rabbits Organics is trialling fruit tattoos – a way of printing directly on the fruit skin and some European supermarkets have been lasering labels on avocados, sweet potatoes and coconuts since 2017.
So, should you eat them?
While fruit stickers won’t do you too much harm if you accidentally eat one or two, it’s recommended you peel them off instead.
One Indian state’s Food and Drug Administration banned fruit stickers over health concerns, saying the chemicals used are unsafe and have even urged people not to buy fruit with stickers.
Petra Stock has a degree in environmental engineering and a Masters in Journalism from University of Melbourne. She has previously worked as a climate and energy analyst.
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