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Country of Origin in the Barcode?

Barcode License Plate Scanning

You might have come across versions of the following information in an email or on various social media sites about a barcode number indicating the country of origin of the product:

Barcode HeadersThis information originated a few years ago following the melamine-tainted foods and toys manufactured in China. Understandably, consumers wanted to be better informed about where products they buy came from. This led to the widespread sharing of this barcode information.

Although there is some truth to this helpful tip, finding out the origins of a product for American consumers is not so straight-forward.  The two- or three- digit country code referenced are incorporated into the European Article number, or EAN-13, barcode standard, but not in the USA’s commonly used UPC-A barcode standard. Also, the EAN-13 country codes indicate the country or economic region where the barcode was assigned, and might not be the country where the product was made.

As stated on GS1’s website, “A GTIN starts with the GS1 Prefix of the GS1 Member Organization that allocated a GS1 Company Prefix to a company to allow them to generate GTINs and bar code their products. This does not mean that the product was manufactured in a specific country or by a specific manufacturer, it may have been produced anywhere in the world.” The prefix code is a way to have 70-plus GS1 member organizations issuing numbers without having to worry about duplicate numbers. The 3-digit  prefix indicates the country of the GS1 organization that issued the block  of numbers, not the country of origin of the product. For example, a company headquartered in South Africa will have the code “600”, but their products may be manufactured in England. The English-made products will still have the “600” prefix code on the barcode.

With products being grown or manufactured, packed, and shipped all over the globe, the barcode prefix is not a reliable method for determining where the product was grown or manufactured. Better methods are the package labels or grocery store labels that identify the country of origin.

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  1. David Holliday says:

    美国制造 (Made in USA) will hopefully be seen on more and more items sold in China!

  2. joan nied says:

    Easily determining the country of origin of any product we purchase is an American right which seems to be progressively obscure. Deliberately obscuring a known code disadvantages the public’s right to know what they are consuming. Where are such codes publicized? Are we being misled in favor of China? Please explain why these codes are not easily available to all. most cordially, joan nied, fallbrook, ca.

  3. David Holliday says:

    Joan, the UPC barcode on most products isn’t going to help you much with determining where a product is made. I agree with you that product labeling should give us this information.

    You might recall that when the meat industry attempted to introduce Country of Origin Labeling in the US (in the 2008 Farm Bill), the case was referred to the World Trade Organization, where the US lost. I believe this is currently being appealed.

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