What the Barcode Tells?

What the Barcode Tells

How often have you picked up a product, looked at the label, and wondered what the barcode tells? What cryptic information does it hold? And how do you crack the bar code?

We know those funny little black lines — some wide, some narrow — tell the cashier things, like what product it identifies, and its price. But, without one of their electronic readers, what can you the consumer learn from it? Or, more importantly, what can you not learn from it?

In the wake of 2008 product scares involving melamine-tainted pet foods, lead-tainted toys, and melamine-tainted milk products, all originating in China, consumers in the U.S. because more apprehensive about the places of origin of the products they were purchasing. However, many became frustrated in their efforts to be more savvy shoppers. Emails purporting to help consumers determine where a product came from began to circulate fast and furiously.

Over the last few years I’ve received several emails that all go something like this:


Everyone Must Know This!

The whole world is scared of made-in-China “black-hearted goods”.

Can you differentiate which one is made in the USA, Philippines,

Taiwan or China. Let me tell you how: the first 3 digits of the

barcode is the country code wherein the product was made.

 It goes on to list the country in which the product was produced, using those 3 digits. And it ends with “Please inform your family and friends for them to be aware.” It tells you to copy these numbers down on a small card which you are to carry with you at all times, so you won’t be caught unaware in the supermarket. It certainly seems like sound advice … something I’d want to do to ensure my health and safety and that of my family.

The only problem is, like so much that circulates through the internet as “gospel truth”, it’s only partially true. (Note: a lot of what goes around the internet is totally bogus, so beware. Question everything, even if it was sent by someone you trust.)  What the Barcode Tells is less than what that email promises.

What the Barcode Tells
It must be true ~ it’s on the Internet

Here’s what my research on the point of origin on barcodes shows:

  • More than one kind of barcode is in use around the world.
  • UPC barcodes, the type most commonly used in the United States, do not typically contain a country identifier.
  • A different type of barcode known as EAN-13 does, but it’s generally used in Europe and other countries outside the U.S.
  • Even in the case of EAN-13 barcodes, the digits associated with country of origin don’t necessarily specify where the product was manufactured, but rather where the barcode was registered. So, for example, a product manufactured in China and sold in France could have an EAN-13 barcode identifying it as a “French” product.

Looking for a “Made in XYZ” label can be helpful, but, particularly with regard to foods and beverages, there’s no way to determine where a product or its components originated. Many a businessperson in China is aware that consumers in the U.S. do not wish to purchase products, especially food products, from their country, so instead of printing “Made in China” on the label, they print the location of their distributor, which may be Seattle or Massachusetts, or anywhere that doesn’t pose a threat. (Note: This also applies to countries other than China.)

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration mandates country-of-origin labeling on some food products, but the entire category of “processed foods” is exempt from that mandate. Consumer groups are currently advocating the closure of these loopholes.


What the Barcode Tells:

  • Barcodes in the U.S. are designed for the merchandiser, not the consumer.
  • Don’t believe everything you read.
  • Barcodes commonly used in the U.S. do not indicate the country of origin.
  • A notice on the label such as “Distribution by XYZ, Inc., in West Hillsborough, Oregon” tells nothing about where that product was made.
  • Several types of barcodes exist around the world, some of which do tell the country of origin, but not those used in the U.S.
  • I repeat: Do not believe everything you read, especially if it came from email or social media.

Savvy shopping has become much more difficult in our present globalized world. My advice: Read the label. If it doesn’t say where it’s from — if it only tells from whence it’s distributed — put it back and buy something else. If you’re in the U.S., don’t rely on the barcode because what the barcode tells isn’t much!


If you’d like to learn more about what the barcode tells about products’ country of origin, please visit:




When you receive one of those emails or a notice on Facebook telling you how to “read” barcodes, please return it to the sender with one of the above links refuting the claim.


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