Consumers Being Misled by Viral E-Mail About Barcodes

A viral e-mail about barcodes is creating consumer confusion and potentially harming American businesses. The e-mail erroneously states that “the first 3 digits” of a product’s Universal Product Code (U.P.C.) barcode always indicate the product’s country of origin, and encourages consumers to make their buying decisions based on these numbers.

GS1 US, as the administrator and sole source of U.P.C. barcode prefixes in the United States, warns that consumers heeding this faulty advice are being misled and could unintentionally “boycott” businesses or products they would otherwise choose to support.

The viral e-mail claims that barcode prefixes on American-made products will start with a zero or one, but in fact they might begin with nearly any digit for a number of reasons. A consumer following the advice of the viral email to read barcodes and “buy American” could inadvertently avoid buying a product as American as apple pie. 

Barcodes act as “keys” to databases of information in computers. Although the adjacent digits can be read by humans, they are not formatted for use by consumers. For instance, because the first digit in a U.P.C. barcode format is separated from the others, a person reading the number for clues of its origin might ignore it – i.e., misread the number – and make the wrong buying decision. 

For more information about U.P.C. barcodes visit