Do Barcodes Reveal Where a Product Was Made?

Warehouse worker using electronic barcode reader, close-up of hand

Inti St Clair/Getty Images

A Viral message claims potentially hazardous products made in China or other countries can be identified by examining the first three digits of the barcode on the packaging, which supposedly indicate the country of origin.

Description: Viral message / Forwarded email
Circulating since: Oct. 2008
Status: Mixed / Misleading (details below)

Example

Email from Nov. 8, 2008:

Made in China barcodes
THIS IS GOOD TO KNOW!!!
The whole world is scared of China made '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.
Sample all barcodes that start with 690.691.692 until 695 are all MADE IN CHINA.
This is our human right to know, but the government and related department never educate the public, therefore we have to RESCUE ourselves.
Nowadays, Chinese businessmen know that consumers do not prefer products 'made in china', so they don't show from which country it is made.
However, you may now refer to the barcode, remember if the first 3 digits is 690-695 then it is Made in China.
00 ~ 13 USA & CANADA
30 ~ 37 FRANCE
40 ~ 44 GERMANY
49 ~ JAPAN
50 ~ UK
57 ~ Denmark
64 ~ Finland
76 ~ Switzerland and Lienchtenstein
471 is Made in Taiwan (see sample below)
628 ~ Saudi-Arabien
629 ~ United Arab Emirates
740 ~ 745 - Central America

All 480 Codes are Made in the Philippines.
Please inform your family and friends for them to be aware.

Analysis

The information above is misleading and unreliable, on two counts:

  1. There's more than one kind of barcode 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 contain a country identifier, but it's more commonly used in Europe and other countries outside the U.S.
  2. Even in the case of EAN-13 barcodes, the digits associated with the country of origin don't necessarily specify where the product was manufactured, but rather where the barcode itself 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 even though it originated in China.

Looking for a "Made in XYZ" label is generally more helpful, but, particularly with regard to foods and beverages, there's no sure-fire way to determine in every case where a product or its components originated. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration mandates country-of-origin labeling on many food products, but there are exceptions, most notably the entire category of "processed foods." Consumer groups are currently advocating the closure of these loopholes.

Sources

EAN Identification for Retail/Trade Items
GS1 Singapore Number Council

A Closer Look at EAN-13
Barcode.com, 28 August 2008

Design and Technology of Packaging Decoration for the Consumer Market
By Geoff A. Giles, CRC Press, 2000

How UPC Bar Codes Work
HowStuffWorks.com

At Long Last, Food Labeling Law Set to Take Effect
MSNBC, 30 September 2008