A few weeks ago I received a chain email from a relative "decoding" UPC codes. It stated that the first three numbers of the code indicated the country of origin and included a list for quick reference. Working in retail, I thought this was fascinating information but couldn't believe I had never heard about it before. When I took the list to work and did some comparisons, the email proved pretty bogus. But I was still interested in what the UPC actually tells us.
A Universal Product Code, or UPC, sits under the bar code of any mass-produced item. The bar code consists of several vertical lines containing data that is machine readable and is what your cashier scans when you purchase an item. Bar codes began their career in the railroad industry, as a means of labeling rail cars, but found their true calling in retail.
In the early 1970s the National Association of Food Chains (NAFC) developed a committee to work on a Universal Grocery Product Code and sent out notification to many businesses searching for a pattern to attach to this code to convey the product data. IBM won with the linear bar code system and the first UPC was scanned in 1974 off a pack of Juicy Fruit gum in an Ohio supermarket.
While we now have many different types of UPCs and bar codes used throughout industry and for any type of tracking (monitoring work production, movement of employees and packages, consumer identification, etc.), the UPC used on mass-marketed items in the United States comes from the Uniform Code Council (UCC). A manufacturer applies for a UPC, pays a fee and gets a number.
In America, our codes are 12 digits. Contrary to the email I received, no hidden messages are contained in this simple assignment of numbers. The first six digits are the manufacturer's code, assigned to every company that pays the fee to have UPCs. The following five numbers are that specific product's identification. Most companies have so many different items with UPCs that they employ a person or team of people to keep track of them. If you think about bottled water, for instance, a company sells the same product in many forms — as a single bottle in various sizes; as a 6-pack; 12-pack; 24-pack; also in assorted ounces. While it is the same water, each size/packaging quantity has to have its own code.
The final number, also called the check digit, is a bit more complicated. Following a mathematical process
performed on the scanner, this check digit allows the machine to determine if it configured the UPC correctly or if it needs rescanned.
Where the email I received could actually be correct is if we were discussing EAN numbers, which is the International Article number often used for international products sold in retail. In this system, the first three digits
are used to identify the member organization to which the manufacturer belongs. This can be confusing because it does not identify where the product is made, just where the company applying for the number is located.