November 13, 2007

Sticky Nuisance to Some, Collector’s Item to Others
By Irene Plagianos

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A fellow collector sent Becky Martz the Chung Liau banana sticker after a trip to China. Many collectors see visits to foreign countries as a label-collecting adventure. (Courtesy of Becky Martz)

Becky Martz and Gerri Lorenzo trade their favorite collectibles: design-packed produce labels. Hundreds of people worldwide collect the tiny stickers. (Courtesy of Becky Martz)

Becky Martz of Houston, Texas carefully organizes her collection of banana labels. Martz has accumulated nearly 7,000 produce stickers.

A man in Costa Rica sent this colorful label to Becky Martz. An international network of collectors trade stickers without paying for their tiny treasures. (Courtesy of Becky Martz)

This is the first banana label Becky Martz ever saved. For many collectors, the variety of fun slogans on the labels makes each one special and worth saving. (Courtesy of Becky Martz)

This South American banana label is one of Becky Martz's favorites and dates back to the early 1970s.

Collector Becky Martz says she considers this Ecuadorian banana label special because of its "pretty colors." (Courtesy of Becky Martz)
It started innocently enough.
Five years ago, before chomping into an apple or peeling a banana, members of the Slusarek family began detaching the little labels from the fruit and sticking them on their kitchen cabinets. But the practice didn’t end once the cupboards were covered with stickers. “It was getting out of hand,” said Wojciech Slusarek, 62, “but I just couldn’t throw them out.” Today, Slusarek, a retired chemist in Rochester, N.Y., has amassed nearly 4,000 produce stickers--now neatly arranged in notebooks.
“It’s a bit crazy,” said Slusarek, a native of Poland. “But it’s a fun hobby too.”
Though shoppers might find the little labels a sticky nuisance, hundreds of people worldwide collect them. More than 30 Web sites and several conferences worldwide are dedicated to collectors of P.L.U. (price look-up) labels. But a new technology that etches edible markers on produce may eventually stamp out the stickers.
Currently, about 1,200 produce items are registered with the P.L.U. system, and more than 75 billion labels a year are stuck to pieces of fruit and vegetables, according to the International Federation for Produce Standards. The stickers, which often display brand names, logos and catchy slogans, have a humble purpose: Numbers on them identify the type of produce for the cashier, which speeds up the trip to the checkout counter.
Conventionally grown produce has four numbers, organically grown has five digits beginning with a 9, and genetically modified fruit and vegetables have five digits beginning with an 8. For example, a conventionally grown banana may be marked 4011; an organic one, 94011; and a genetically modified one, 84011.
But it’s the tiny details of their design-packed quarry, not the identifying numbers, that interest collectors. Like postage stamps, the half-inch-diameter stickers often display bold, jewel-like colors; depict exotic locales; and convey cultural information. One of Slusarek’s favorite mango tags displays a tropical Mexican beach scene: deep blue waves crash against the golden sand, where a large indigo parrot balances on an orange-striped beach ball under palm trees.
To secure their bounty, collectors sometimes engage in some pretty peculiar behavior. Becky Martz, of Houston, has taken a label off the banana in a friend’s hospital room and plucked a sticker from a rotten peel on the street, to the embarrassment of