How to read Food Bar Codes

Written by: Brenton Wight
Updated 19th June 2020
Copyright © 2020

Wrong information on many Barcode sites

This site also had some correct and some incorrect info, so this update hopes to put everything right.

The first 2 digits on some barcodes indicate only the where the barcode numbers originated.
They do not necessarily have anything to do with where the actual product originated or processed or packed or shipped to, so the info on the packet is more important.

There are many different barcode formats.

The EAN-13 (European Article Number) barcodes are 13-digit codes that can be used on all retail products in Australia and worldwide. Derived from the International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN).
Always has a leading zero as the first number. Other versions of EAN barcodes include EAN-8, JAN-13, ISBN (books), and ISSN (magazines).
The UPC-A barcode is also used in Australia, but the EAN-13 barcode is by far the most popular.
EAN-13 is also the main barcode in Europe and many other countries, and the most common world-wide.
Can be read by barcode scanners everywhere in the world, including the USA, even though the USA commonly uses the UPC 12-digit UPC barcode.

The UPC-A (Universal Product Code) encodes twelve numerical digits, commonly used in the USA and Canada.
Can also be used in Australia, as barcode scanners happily decode both UPC and EAN barcodes.
Many scanners actually convert the UPC code to the EAN-13 code anyway.
Another UPC barcode is UPC-E which is a smaller and encodes only six numerical digits.



Code 39

Code 39 is one of the oldest barcodes. It is a lineal, alphanumeric code with the ability to include the entire 128 ASCII character set and extend to any length, only limited by the size of the label. If size matters, Code 128 would be a better choice.

Derived from the ASCII 128 character set (0-9, a-z, A-Z, and some special characters), this compact barcode is used extensively in packaging and shipping applications worldwide. Code 128 features an automatic switching setting that allows users to optimize it for barcode length.

Others I will not discuss here include:
Industrial 2 of 5, uncommon but still used in some warehouses
Interleaved 2 of 5, Newer and better than the Industrial 2 of 5 code.
Standard 2 of 5, Older variation of the Interleaved 2 of 5 code, not commonly used.
PDF417, A stacked, linear 2D barcode but being replaced by the QR barcode.

Datamatrix CodeData Matrix, A common 2D barcode.  Square shape and can encode large amounts of information in a small space.



QR CodeQuick Response (QR) Codes

The latest trend in barcoding, QR Codes are gaining popularity as marketing tools to link to web based information.  Not as compact as Data Matrix, you will find them often used on advertising materials and storefronts, linking to special promotions or details about a certain product.

Where our Food comes from

A Current Affair on Australia’s TV Channel 9 reported on frozen vegetables imported into Australia from New Zealand.
If the product is a “home brand” from Coles or Woolworths, it may well have originated from China.
Other “name brand” products such as McCain’s, Birdseye and others from New Zealand can now be sourcing vegetables from China, then selling them as their own product. Unfortunately, New Zealand laws do not prevent this from happening.
If the the pack is labelled “Produced from New Zealand and Imported product” it almost invariably contains Chinese, Vietnamese, Hong Kong or Thailand products where there are no regulations or inspections.
Even if it claims “Product of New Zealand” there may still be some doubt about the origin.
Highliner brand fish come from China, raised in pens and treated with banned cancer-causing chemicals, but come in a box labelled “Product of Canada”.

Product of Australia

If the label claims “Product of Australia” or “Grown and packed in Australia” then it generally should be totally home-grown where strict food laws apply.
If the label states “Made from Local and Imported ingredients” then in almost every case, there is probably zero Australian content apart from perhaps packaging.

What is wrong with Chinese produce?

Foods grown or processed in China, Vietnam, Hong Kong or Thailand have zero food inspection regulations!
These countries often use dangerous chemicals which are banned in Australia, USA, UK and Europe.
Chinese food producers no longer label anything “Made in China” because they know that Chinese food products are likely to be contaminated and are not trusted.

A Simple way to avoid problems

Avoid all packaged food.

Buy fresh food from the fruit and vegetable department, preferably in the organic section, or better still, buy from your local Farmer’s Market where you can talk to the people who grow the food, and seek assurances about use of chemicals, etc.

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