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Madison Czopek
By Madison Czopek April 23, 2020

A barcode won’t tell you if a product was made in China

If Your Time is short

• A product’s barcode numbers don’t reveal its country of origin.

• Prefixes for product numbers are assigned to individual manufacturers based on a set of country codes, but the products could be made anywhere.

• These claims have been around since 2008 and have been debunked several times.

As American businesses struggle to stay afloat amid shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, calls to buy American-made products have been growing on social media.

Also rearing its head online is anti-Asian and anti-Chinese sentiment, directed at the country where the novel coronavirus was first discovered

One viral image from Facebook reads: "Pick up a product. Look at the barcode. If the first 3 numbers are 690 or 691 or 692, the product was made in China. Put it down and buy from any other country."

The post misrepresents what the numbers that accompany a barcode indicate; they do not tell consumers where a product was made. 

These claims appear to date back to a 2008 email chain, and they’ve been repeatedly dismissed as incorrect. The idea that barcodes indicate a product’s country of origin has been debunked through the years by outlets such as Snopes, Reuters, Lead Stories and Nationwide Barcode.

How barcodes work 

Barcodes are found on nearly all consumer products worldwide.

The black and white barcode on a product package is an electronically scannable image that is accompanied by product number, usually printed just below it. This number, called a Global Trade Item Number, identifies what a product is and the owner of the brand that makes it. Although several variations of product numbers are used around the world, a 12- or 13-digit product number is common.

The Facebook post claims that the first two to three digits of a product number indicate a product’s country of origin. But this is not the case, according to GS1, the global nonprofit foundation that works with manufacturers to assign the unique product numbers used with barcodes.

These first few digits, called a prefix, are significant: GS1 licenses prefixes to manufacturers so they can create unique product numbers and barcodes that identify their particular company as the owner. These company prefixes are based on a set of country codes.

It’s true that 690 to 699 prefixes are assigned to GS1 China, but that doesn’t mean products with those prefixes are made there. GS1’s website notes that "since GS1 member companies can manufacture products anywhere in the world, GS1 prefixes do not identify the country of origin for a given product."

Most products have written labels that indicate where they were made. For example, a box of anti-viral Kleenex tissues says, "Made in the USA from domestic and imported material."

Nationwide Barcode, another outfit that sells EAN and UPC barcodes, confirms that the product number prefix does not indicate what country a product was made in.

"Whether you purchase a barcode prefix from the GS1 or purchase a barcode from a company like Nationwide Barcode, the barcode will indicate the country where the prefix originated, regardless of where that company has their products manufactured," says a Nationwide Barcode article.

Our ruling

A viral image reads, "Pick up a product. Look at the barcode. If the first 3 numbers are 690 or 691 or 692, the product was made in China."

The prefix of the number that accompanies a barcode does not indicate what country the product was manufactured in. While GS1 assigns prefixes to companies based on a set of country codes, those companies can manufacture their products anywhere in the world.

We rate this image Mostly False.

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A barcode won’t tell you if a product was made in China

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