September 20th, 2014
I’m having a novel experience. The grocery store that is my main supply depot is being reconstructed over the course of a year while remaining open for business. At the moment, one wall has been replaced by an immense sheet of opaque plastic, all the floor tiles have been removed and one entire aisle has simply vanished. It’s not uncommon that my mental map of the store leads me to a sign informing me of where what I’m looking for now lives. In short, the reassuring sameness of the grocery store narrative — it’s all here, it’s always here — is up for grabs.
In truth, I enjoy it. The rote shopping trip has now become a sort of easter egg hunt in a continuously metamorphosing arena. But there’s an interesting side-effect to all this shape-shifting. It makes you start to wonder about the things that don’t change.
Take, for instance, stickers — specifically Price Lookup (PLU) stickers, those small rounded things you find adhered to fruit. PLU stickers, with their four or five digit numbers, date to the 1990s and were intended to allow checkers to accurately code the produce at checkout.
They arrived in the wake of the barcode revolution. UPCs, or Universal Product Codes, were a solution to inventory control that the grocery industry had been seeking since the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that cheap-enough lasers and computers made it so that everything in a box or bag had a barcode.
UPC scanners brought an end to the awe-inspiring checkers of yore, who ferociously punched codes into their mechanical registers with fingers of steel controlled by brains that had memorized hundreds of items. In retrospect, it’s clear that the UPC was the enabling technology which lead to the explosive proliferation of processed food “choices,” most of them variously branded versions of the same thing, often issuing from the same manufacturer.
But I suppose that the twilight of the Master Checkers meant that the ability to visually identify produce was an employee-training bottleneck, and so the PLU arrived, meaning the ability to ID an apple was based on literacy and not experience.
Of course, shoppers can read what the stickers say, too, and there has been some internet chatter about the codes being a way of understanding the reality of what’s in your hand. Now, it is true that the standards group that created the codes did, in fact, add two potential digits to indicate foods that are either organic or GMO. You’ll find this as the first digit of a five digit code, with “9” being organic, and “8” being GMO. Except, of course, you’ll never find one starting with an “8” because the leading digit is optional and, as millions of dollars spent on defeating GMO labeling initiatives tell us, GMO purveyors aren’t anxious to use their technology as a selling tool. Still, you’ll find the “9” there all the time and — at least at my grocery — you’ll find a second sticker, in addition to the PLU, one which simply reads, “organic.”
I hate this. Really, truly, and unreasonably. Sure, there’s the annoyance of picking them off, but what really gets me is that often, by the time I’m done, the nectarines, or zucchinis, or what-have-you that I carefully selected are now bruised, torn, and oozing. And of course, the glue doesn’t come off.
FDA considers sticker adhesive to be an “indirect food additive,” because — as in any kind of packaging — there is the possibility of some of the packaging migrating into the food. Of course, we’re talking about “packaging” glued to the food, but perhaps that’s just me being unreasonable.
Anyway, they have a list of what’s acceptable and it ranges from things such as vulcanized rapeseed oil (Really? You can turn it to rubber by overcooking it?) all the way to:
Butylated reaction product of p-cresol and dicyclopentadiene produced by reacting p-cresol and dicyclopentadiene in an approximate mole ratio of 1.5 to 1.0, respectively, followed by alkylation with isobutylene so that the butyl content of the final product is not less than 18 percent, for use at levels not to exceed 1.0 percent by weight of the adhesive formulation.
Good? Bad? Who the hell knows. All we can tell is that someone did think about it and we can hope that they were thinking clearly.
But there’s another component of the stickers that’s not so easy to remove. It sounds peculiar to say it out loud, but a sticker has authority. It’s categorical, definitive. By being adhered to an item of food (a thing with it’s own supervisory government agency) within a grocery’s theater of commerce (a second government agency there) and finally being subject to universal law (shoplift it and risk arrest) the most mundane be-stickered banana is firmly embedded in How Things Work.
How things work, in the case of my organic nectarine, is that I seek out the annoying pink sticker that I detest. It’s a mark of distinction, a signifier of the thing’s history, something worth paying a premium for. But when I find myself standing by a bin of nectarines in a space that used to be a staircase, I start to wonder… why not the other way around?
If we can rearrange the walls, how about the stickers, too? What it would be like to enter the produce section of a market and find aisles and bins of produce bearing stickers that read “conventional?” If the organics were the default and conventional the outlier, what would it do to the way we heard that word? Perhaps it would clarify the meaning, as conventional derives from the Latin conventionalis, invoking both a gathering of people and an agreement between them. This seems to be closer to the truth because, certainly, people did get together and decide that produce would be better produced if the plants and soil were as saturated as possible with a variety of offerings from the petrochemical industry.
I just don’t think that many of us shoppers were invited to the meeting.