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GS1 US Fact Check: UPC Barcodes Do Not Reveal a Product’s Country of Origin

Rumors circulating on social media have forced GS1 US into issuing a statement confirming Universal Product Code (UPC) labels do not indicate a product’s country of origin.

On Monday, the not-for-profit organization responsible for administrating the barcode labels in the United States released a statement to combat recent posts GS1 US branded “misinformation.”

“Inaccurate social media posts claiming that U.P.C. barcodes can identify where a product was produced have gone viral in recent weeks,” GS1 US senior vice president of enterprise program Carrie Wilkie said in a statement. “While the first three numbers encoded within a U.P.C. may correlate to the country in which a brand operates, they do not signify the location where a product was manufactured.”

A portion of the barcode, the GS1 Global Trade Item Number (GTIN), does uniquely identify a product in the supply chain, including at point of sale, the organization said. Each company seeking a GTIN must obtain a GS1 Company Prefix acquired through a license agreement with GS1 US or another GS1 member organization around the world.

This prefix can identify where a company acquired this license but does not always reflect where it does business—much less where the product itself was manufactured.

“We understand there’s heightened interest among shoppers to understand where products are made, but GS1 member companies can manufacture products anywhere in the world and the U.P.C. in use today does not provide that level of detail for consumers,” Wilkie said.

This doesn’t necessarily always have to be the case, however. GS1 US expects brands to make detailed information regarding their products more readily available within the next five years.

“With a simple smartphone scan of a product, consumers will have access to a host of information provided by the brand, which GS1 US is recommending include country of origin,” Wilkie said.

A recent GS1 US study found 82 percent of retailers and 92 percent of brand owners support a move away from U.P.C. barcodes to data-rich 2D barcodes like the GS1 DataMatrix, digital watermarks or RFID in the next one to five years.

No matter which medium wins out, GS1 US admitted a more advanced data carrier will be needed to provide that level of transparency to consumers.