Overview of barcodes in the Food Industry for dummies

A lot of companies approached me over the past few weeks about challenges they had with barcodes. While I wrote already a few items on the topic, I thought to write a general overview for people with the necessary resources so that they understand the general framework of barcoding.

First of all it helps to understand that bar-codes are just a font. The only difference between these fonts and the one you are looking at while reading this text is, that barcodes are easier to read for machines and more difficult to read for humans. With this said, creating a barcode is actually as simple as formatting a text in MS-Word. It actually is! The only problem is, that companies in the supply chain have agreed on certain standards, so that barcodes generated by one organization can be used by another. In technology terms, you call this ‘interoperability’ or ‘compatibility’.

To ensure interoperability and compatibility retailers and manufacturer of retail products developed standards in the 70s, first the UCC in the United States followed a couple of years later by the EAN in Europe. Both harmonized their standards eventually with Sunrise 2005 and both standardization organizations became GS1. Today, GS1 has a presence in 108 countries, has over 1,000,000 participants in 156 countries. GS1 is the bar-code standard everybody should use because everybody can understand it, there is no alternative. There are proprietary barcodes for internal applications (e.g. 2 of 5 INT) that we still find in legacy applications, but if you implement barcodes today, you should avoid any implementation of barcodes outside of GS1 Standards. These standards are defined in the “GS-1 General Specifications V12″ (free Download from GS1-Sweden, $1,500 via GS1-US, don’t you love Globalization?).

I don’t know if you really bother downloading the specifications (you should) and read the specifications (you should not), but these are very complex. These standards apply to a wide range of industries, so that they are not only in use in food and grocery distribution, but in manufacturing of all kinds of industries. Even auto parts.

To harmonize the adaptation within certain industry segments, GS1 and trade organization defined within the GS1-framework certain implementation guidelines. They basically define a subset of the general specifications and dumb it down to the relevant information for their constituency. There are already a few out there:

These standards define how we interact between business systems, like warehouse management systems and ERP Systems.

Over the past few years, we saw the rise of consumer barcodes using so called QR-Codes. QR codes today enable consumers to scan barcodes using the build in camera of the smart phones to automatically process information. Most applications of QR codes today contain a link to a website, but QR codes can do much more than that. GS1 has addressed the rise of QR-codes in the latest edition of its general specifications, so that we see a convergence of QR and GS1 standards that probably will progress over time.


Companies that need to implement bar coding solutions have different options. It can be as simple as using a generically available labeling software such as Labelview, via industry specific solutions that provide basic database functions with bar coding and data retrieval (e.g. Harvestmark for produce) to fully integrated industry specific ERP and data collection solutions for food (such as CSB-System), which implement all standard business processes such as order processing and manufacturing based on the industry standards above, naturally enabling companies to adhere to these standards.

It is important for companies to understand the scope of their GS1 implementations. GS1 does not stop at bar coding. GS1 standards encompass other areas, such as EDI, data synchronization and even programming interfaces between business systems, like EPCIS, which is basically Facebook for business applications. Expect that a GS1 compliant implementation will grow, you may start very basic but your implementation will grow over time, since your customers and vendors want to make their business processes more effective and efficient in their pursuit of productivity and competitiveness increases. Companies need to make smart choices on how the implement what they need on the short-term to pacify the demands of their business partners and adapt to changes as they will evolve in the future protecting investments into technology already done.


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