American Patriots Finding They Can't Rely On Barcodes

As a columnist, it's always a challenge to deal with false information that is being spread so widely that it needs to be corrected. And when the means of that spreading is E-mail—which has delivered more false information to its audience than dating service profiles—the frustration becomes even greater.

But with this situation, involving barcodes, patriotism and global manufacturing, it's too bizarre a story to pass up. According to a not-for-profit outfit called GS1 US that focuses on barcodes, there's an E-mail campaign that says consumers can identify American products by the first three digits of the barcode.

In theory, this would allow people who only want to buy American products an easy way to do that. The only problem is that the trick doesn't always work, which means it could have the opposite effect.

"The claim is somewhat grounded in reality, but just enough to be dangerous, even if you're reading it correctly, which is not a safe assumption," said Bob Noe of GS1.

The first problem is defining what an American product is. Is that a product made in America, presumably at an American facility with local workers? Or is it a product made by an American company, meaning a company whose headquarters is in the United States?

But that's only the first concern. Another GS1 official, Jon Mellor, points out another key flaw. The barcode for United States has historically started with a zero, and that's what the E-mail campaign apparently tells consumers to look for.

What's the problem? "Zeros are now exhausted" and have been for some time, Mellor said. In other words, even American firms are being given non-zero barcodes.

All in all, many good reasons for this advice to be ignored. That said, consumers who would make strategic purchasing decisions based on anonymous E-mail campaigns are most likely not going to spend too much time trying to figure out the subtleties of barcode assignment procedures.