Saturday, February 14, 2009

Barcodes don't tell the story, sorry

There is a story making the rounds about how the first three digits of a product's bar code tells where the product was made – its country of origin. With all the worry brought on by reports of lead and mercury contaminated toys, knowing a product's country of origin looms large in our minds these days.

Unfortunately, this bar code idea doesn't work. You'll learn at that there are basically two things wrong with it:

First, the first three digits do give the country of origin, but not of the product – of the bar code itself. Those digits tell you what country assigned that code to the company. It's possible that that country is also where the product was made, but that would be just by chance. For example, a Philippine company would have numbers beginning with 480 assigned to it, but its products could be made anywhere, in the Philippines, China, Canada, anywhere, and still have a code beginning with 480.

Second, those first three digits do not appear in the Universal Product Code (UPC) that we see on all of the stuff we buy in the U.S. Instead, those tell-tail digits appear at the beginning of the European Article Number (EAN) bar code, a code rarely seen in the U.S.

Go to the Snopes rumor-busting web site ( to check out any rumor you hear and follow your nose. You'll most likely find information on what you're looking for. It's good to have a place you can trust pretty much when it comes to the weird and scary stuff you hear these days.

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