Recently, I have noticed some emails and Twitter conversations claiming that you can tell where a product comes from by the first three numbers of a barcode. The idea being that you can avoid products made in certain countries such as China just by looking at the barcode. This is not really true. So I thought I would clear up some confusion here.
The problem stems from a misunderstanding of the EAN-13 barcode which is shown above. The EAN barcode (typically 13 numbers) is the European and Asian version of the American UPC barcode (that has 12 numbers). Now, there are dozens of countries in Europe and Asia and most of these countries have their own organizations for issuing barcodes. The first three numbers of the EAN-13 barcode do indicate which country issued the barcode. But the important point to note is that it does not indicate where a product is manufactured just the country that issued the barcode. For example a company in Germany may source a product from China but apply for a barcode in Germany so it will have the German prefix on the barcode.
Having said all that, for US consumers most products use the good old American UPC barcode pictured above (which turns 35 this month). This is a 12 digit barcode and with this barcode there is no way to tell where the product was made. Take a look at the barcodes next time you are at the grocery store. Most products, even those made in Europe and Asia have the 12 digit UPC barcode. The distributors for those products most likely applied for a barcode in this country and so they carry the UPC barcode.
The bottom line is if you want to know where a product is manufactured you need to read the label carefully. Most (but not all) products will display a country of origin on the label. If that doesn’t work the only other option for you is to do a bit of research and try and work it out for yourself. The reality is that looking at the barcode really won’t help find out where a product is made.