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Barcoding- the clear insight, with no conspiracy to incite!!

Lets relook at the relevance of barcodes on today’s retail food and grocery packaging. The original newsletter was accidently broadcast prior to the correct referencing and fact checking. I have updated the article as per below, and the importance message of reading labels remains the same.

To begin with there is a lot of misinformation regarding the nature of the encoded information in barcodes and what this information means.

By educating we can dispel many of the myths and explain in simple terms what barcodes are used for and what information they contain. To start with, there is very little consumer level information that is of any benefit or even interest to a consumer as the main purpose of a barcode is at a business to business level to allow for easy pricing, replenishment and sales tracking of these items. This is why reading and understanding labels is the best approach. (see below)

Let’s have a look at a standard 13 digit barcode found on most retail items the EAN 13 or now known as the GS1-13 and how to decode the information it contains. The first three digits relate to the country code, this is the country of origin of the barcode but not necessarily the country of origin of the food products or the company that has registered the barcode. For a complete list of the GS1 country prefixes please see

Any company with an Australian Company Number (ACN) or Australian Business Number (ABN) can apply for a GS1 Australia barcode Company prefix and Code, under certain circumstances International companies can also be granted these numbers as well. Whilst looking for the company prefix in a barcode may provide you with some information about where the barcode was generated it may not tell you too much about the source of the products or if the company is registered in that country. For instance an Australian registered country can have products produced in China and have the manufacturer apply their Australian generated barcode to the product packaging, this is perfectly legal and legitimate.

“So although 93 does relate to Australia, the original product could come from another county and it’s been re-barcoded in Australia. This could easily be confusing but there are no conspiracies”. Bradley Wardrop-Brown MAIP, MFTAA B App Sc (Food Science), Assc. Deg App Sc (Food Processing), Dip App Sc (Food Technology) Principal Food Scientist

Source- GS1 Australia

Looking at the barcode above you can see the first three digits 931 are an Australian prefix, the following six digits are the unique company identifier, a company can have one or many prefixes/identifiers as each company identifier only gives you 1000 products ( second group of numbers 000-999) and the last is a very clever little number which works from a complex mathematical formula that helps the barcode scanning equipment to ensure it read the barcode correctly…it’s called the check digit because this is the final check of the validity of the number read from the bars by the laser scanner. For those interested see

There are many other forms of barcodes such as the EAN/GS1 8 which as the name implies only has 8 digits and is used on very small items such as chewing gum and lifesaver packets as the format is smaller but the format remains basically identical.

Bar codes are also found on the shipping carton multiples of the retail items and is generally associated with the retail item by using the same “product number” but generating a ITF/GS1 14 barcode which is 14 digits long.

Barcoding- the clear insight, with no conspiracy to incite 2

What is important is not to confuse barcodes with PLU (price look up) codes used in the US, there are generally set in categories and used to identify individual products, conventional and organic produce etc and are common across the entire grocery market. Barcode number by contrast have their item numbers generally provided one after the other so a large food producer may have their first pasta sauce with the number 000 and their pasta 001 and so on, there is no “category” reference to be found in the three digits used.

I hope this provided at least a little clarification regarding the use and generation of barcodes and the information they contain. For further information please see

PLU codes in Australia are as follows:

PLU codes in the US are as follows:

Conventionally Grown Fruit: These four-digit numbers run through all the fruits. For example, guava is 4299 and a banana is 4011. You can also search PLU codes online.

Organically Grown Fruit: This produce has five digit labels that start with the number 9. An organically-grown banana would be 94011.

Genetically Modified Food: These five digit labels start with an 8, so for example, a genetically engineered vine ripe tomato would be 84805.

How to read labels!
1. Best before: Check this date for food’s freshness.

2. Ingredients: The product’s content appears in descending order from the main ingredient, then the second biggest and so on. You’ll be able to see what percentage the product’s characterising ingredients constitute – so if you’re buying whole grain cereal, you’ll know how much of the cereal is actually made from whole grains similarly, with yoghurt and jams you’ll be able to tell from the label how much real fruit you’re getting. Another change is that if the product contains oil, the label must specify the type of oil –eg vegetable oil. If you see hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated fats/oils, is some cases can means that they are using Trans-Fatty Acids in the product and should be avoided.

3. Nutrition panel: The top section spells out the serving size of the food. Remember if you double this, you’ll double the calorie and fat count, too. The nutrients are listed to show the amount per serve and per 100g (or 100ml if liquid). Use the ‘per 100g’ information to compare similar products. The panel can also help you work out your total nutrient intake for the day and, for example, check if you’re getting enough protein.

4. Protein: You need to have 1g of protein for every kg of body weight. For example 67kg equals 67g of protein per day.

5. Carbohydrates: You need to look at the sugars column that is the amount of sugar that is added to the product. When looking at this column there should never be more than 10g of sugar per 100g serving of carbohydrates.

6. Dietary Fibre: Fibre is essential for a healthy digestive system and should be a component of our carbohydrate sources of food. When purchasing carbohydrate based products always check the fibre content per 100g and aim for at least 3g of fibre per 100g serving.

7. Fat: Besides spelling out the total fat in a particular food, the nutrition panel also has to say how much of it is saturated fat, which is ‘bad’ fat. This will make it easier to choose brands with the least amount of this fat. The top figure tells you the total in the product – the second figure tells you how much of it is the ‘bad’ saturated fat. If a product is “low fat” it should have less than 2g fat and a normal product should have no more than about 4g of fat.

8. Sodium: More isn’t better when it comes to sodium. Your body only needs 2,300mg of sodium (one teaspoon) daily. As many products contain too much, it makes sense to check the label. As a guideline: less than 120mg of sodium per 100g of product is a low sodium content; more than 400mg of sodium per 100g is high; and anything above 1,000mg per 100g is very high.

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