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A sticky situation crops up in produce bin

In the grand scheme, tiny stickers on fruit are definitely one of life's littler things, like a fly that keeps buzzing around your head.

Once the exclusive domain of Chiquita, fruit stickers have spread like a virus. These days, just about every piece of fruit _ plus some vegetables _ has a label inscribed with little numbers, names of states and varieties such as Fuji and Gala.

More recently, the stickers _ official name "PLUs," or "price lookup units" _ have become a vehicle for advertising. Last month, they touted the fact that the Jim Carrey film Liar, Liar was available on video; two weeks ago they asked folks buying bananas in California, "Got Milk?"

The entire produce industry is converting to the PLU system, says Erik Gregersen, president of Sinclair Systems, a company in Campbell, Calif., that makes equipment and stickers for labeling fruits and vegetables.

"That four-digit number you see on the sticker enables the checkout counter to punch in the corresponding number which has been programed into the computer _ it provides the details of that particular item," he says. "It makes for a more accurate checkout, rather than have the supermarket clerk say, "I don't know what it is. I'll just charge it at the cheapest price I can think of and not make the customer mad.' "

Nonetheless, stickers annoy in many ways.

"I eat lots of apples, pears, peaches _ even oranges have them," says Fred Moses, 25, of Dallas. "It's annoying when the stickers are on there, especially if I'm going for a quick snack. I don't want to take it off and throw it on the street."

As he says this, he is munching a Granny Smith apple, its sticker still on. Once, he accidentally swallowed a sticker.

"I had already swallowed it before I realized it," he says. "I thought of all those horrible things your parents tell you when you're very young about swallowing gum. "It's going to get stuck!'

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The stickers are edible in small quantities, Gregersen says.

"They're made of what we call food-grade polyethylene," he says. "Food-grade polyethylene" is really not any different from regular old polyethylene, he says, which is not harmful in small quantities.

Perhaps not, but there is the delicate problem of getting the stickers off.

On a firm item such as an apple, it's a challenge you can approach with confidence. Even if the sticker is recalcitrant about vacating the premises, the apple stands up to almost any tussle.

But try peeling one from a perfectly ripe, slightly yielding tomato. The sad truth is that, in a duel between you and sticker, the tomato _ bruised, beaten and bloody _ becomes the innocent victim.

On other occasions, the sticker has taken with it a patch of peel. Like a petty vandal, the sticker is determined to ruin your fruit. If it can't stay attached, it will vindictively trash it, leaving you with a tomato or a peach you must use immediately or watch rot.

Any route seems doomed. Poking a knife under a corner of the sticker leaves you with a peach that is pierced. Washing it seems to fuse the sticker onto the fruit.

Supermarkets love the stickers _ in fact, they have just about become a requirement, says Mike Martin of Warehouse Farms, a citrus grower in Mission, Texas.

"Most of the retailers pretty much require the sticker, but they don't want to pay for it," he says. "It helps them charge the correct price."

Some customers like the labels. Perhaps you know someone who has a fruit-sticker mosaic on the refrigerator.

Jennifer Daley, 23, of Dallas sees them as price tags. "I like to peel them off," she says. "It makes you feel like it's a "new' piece of fruit."

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