Coming Unglued

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By Robert L. Wolke
Wednesday, August 3, 2005

I have often wondered about the safety of the glue used to attach those little labels on fruit. It annoys me because some fruit (e.g., plums) can be damaged by peeling off the label. While I wash the fruit after I peel the labels, how safe is the stuff they use to hold the labels on?

Jeff Cooper, whom you will instantly recognize as "the father of modern combat pistol shooting," ( http://www.dvc.org.uk/{tilde}johnny/jeff/aboutjff.html ) has written, "Safety is something that happens between your ears, not something you hold in your hands." In spite of my never having fired a pistol in combat, I tend to agree with Father Jeff.

On the other hand, Horace (65-8 B.C.), another great philosopher, although perhaps lesser known in certain circles than Cooper, wrote, "Who can hope to be safe? Who sufficiently cautious? Guard himself as he may, every moment's an ambush."

I must agree also with Horace. There is no such thing as absolute safety, except in the wishful mind of the observer.

Regarding the safety of ingested substances: Every substance, without exception, is hazardous in large enough amounts and harmless in small enough amounts. The weight of a lethal dose of potassium cyanide, for example, is at least a few hundred times the weight of label adhesive that one might ingest on an apple.

So even if the adhesive were pure potassium cyanide (which, of course, it isn't; it is U.S. Food and Drug Administration-certified food grade), you'd have to eat a few hundred sticky apples to die from it, and the apples themselves would have killed you long before that. So "fear not, dear friend, but freely live your days" (Robert Louis Stevenson).

Many fruit labels are made with adhesive-free tabs that assist in their removal without skin damage, which can be a particular problem with plums and pears. If a stubborn label leaves some adhesive on your fruit, you can remove it by patting it a few times with the sticky side of the detached label.

But have you ever wondered why it is necessary for growers and packers to label each and every piece of fruit in a crate? Do the produce unpackers at the supermarket need to be reassured that a crate of oranges really contains oranges? Are the labels merely stating the obvious?

No. The labels are used by the retail markets for inventory control. Notice that they contain numbers, the so-called PLU (Price Look-Up) code. The cashier inputs the code number into the computer that used to be a cash register, and the market's database chalks up the sale of one more apple or orange from a specific supplier.

The PLU numbers also are useful to consumers. Conventionally grown fruits have four-digit PLU numbers beginning with 4. Organically grown fruits have five-digit numbers beginning with 9, and fruits of genetically modified plants have five-digit numbers beginning with 8.

By the way, I have heard rumors that the labels themselves are edible. They are not. They're made of paper, polyethylene or vinyl plastic. Eating one won't kill you, but who'd want to, anyway?

Several years ago I read an article on cinnamon that stated rarely in the United States do we use real cinnamon, but in Europe "true" cinnamon is used exclusively.


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