Learn what bar code numbers mean in the wake of major cereal recall

bar code

On Friday, Kellogg’s recalled about 28 million boxes of cereal because consumers reported a unusual smell coming from the packaging that could potentially make people ill. In order to help identify the specific products involved, Kellogg’s referred the public to the universal product code (UPC).  That’s the official name for the pattern of black lines on the side of almost everything you can possibly purchase. Simply put, the bar code.

It’s not too dramatic to say that UPCs are the hidden language of what we buy, what we owe on our credit cards, and what we aspire to acquire. Most complaints about the erosion of privacy through technology revolve around these little scannable designs.

What makes the bar code interesting is that the lines as well as the 12-digit code have meaning. The white spaces between the black lines are also meaningful. The bars are for machines to “read,” the numbers for us unsophisticated humans. We’ll get to the bars in a bit.

The first six numbers are related to the manufacturer and the type of transaction, the next five describe the product or item number. The last number is the checkdigit, which is used to validate that all of the other numbers have been read correctly by a scanner. The calculation for validation is elaborate (if you want proof, here you go.)

The first number, set off from the rest on the left, designates the general nature of the purchase; coupons, pharmaceuticals, or special pricing arrangements made within the store among other possibilities. The next five  numbers, grouped together, are the specific manufacturer ID. The next three are called the family code, and the two digits before the checkdigit are the value code.  The family code describes a family of products, while the value code designates the value or nature of a coupon.

Now, the bars. (This is a very general explanation of a mathematically complex system. If you seek greater detail, look here.)

Notice that there are four different widths of bar in any UPC code. Each of the four sizes corresponds to a value of one to four. So a black line followed by a white line followed by another black line is three “ones.”  This is how all UPC codes begin. After this “start code,” every sequence of 4 line widths corresponds to binary code for one of the numbers that appear beneath the bars. The last three digits are once again three “ones.”

So let’s try to understand the UPC of one of Kellogg’s recalled cereals, 3800039132 3. First, note that Kellogg’s only provides 11 out of 12 numbers. Referencing above, we can determine that’s because the first number is always specific to the type of transaction that will be used to purchase the product. Since Kellogg’s doesn’t include that initial digit (set off from the rest, like the checkdigit),  the recall is too broad to specifiy by transaction type. The five numbers “38000″ are Kellogg’s manufacturer ID number. The “391″ specifies the identity of the Kellogg product, and the “32″ is a value code that explains the nature of any coupon deals associated with the product.

Returning to English, this UPC is basically saying “I’m an 8.7 ounce box of Apple Jacks.”

Per this specific recall, other factors besides the UPC are necessary to help you determine whether a particular box of cereal is part of the recall or not. For more information, check out Kellogg’s Web site.

Doctor led hostile work environment, inquiry finds.(Front)

The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA) January 21, 2012 By Bill Sizemore The Virginian-Pilot PORTSMOUTH It reads like a scene from the movie “Horrible Bosses.” A Navy doctor who headed a medical command in Portsmouth for two years was found to have abused his authority by “leading with fear, intimidation, and retribution through tyrannical and capricious conduct,” resulting in a hostile work environment. in our site hostile work environment

Capt. Bruce Cohen regularly berated his subordinates in public, threatened them and presided over a workplace infused with mistrust and fear, numerous witnesses said.

Once, Cohen was reported to have said he was ready to behead a subordinate who had displeased him. On other occasions, he allegedly said of various staffers, “Fire them all, I’m sick of it” and “Line them up and shoot them.” Despite these findings, the Navy awarded Cohen the Legion of Merit – the seventh-highest decoration in the hierarchy of military honors, ranking above the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart – for “exceptionally meritorious conduct” during his tenure as commanding officer of the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center from May 2009 to May 2011.

Housed at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, the command’s job is to ensure mission readiness through disease prevention and health promotion.

The allegations against Cohen were substantiated in December 2010 by investigators for the Navy’s medical inspector general. Their report was provided to The Virginian-Pilot in response to an open-records request.

Cohen denied making intimidating or belittling comments about his subordinates. “No, I am not a disciplinarian,” he told investigators. “It was not in my nature to ‘belittle.’ I would talk with them privately.” He merely expected his staff to be accountable, he said.

He declined a request for comment.

The investigators recommended that the Navy take “appropriate corrective action” against Cohen.

Cohen is now assigned to the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story. Hugh Cox, a spokesman for the medical command, said the transfer was a regularly scheduled rotation.

Capt. Cappy Surette, a spokesman for the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, said Cohen was counseled about his management style and opportunities for improvement.

Asked how Cohen was entitled to the Legion of Merit, Surette said all facets of his performance during his tour in Portsmouth were taken into consideration.

Surette said Cohen led an internal reorganization that resulted in a new business plan for the command; spearheaded the development of a five-year, $35 million support system for ill and wounded service members; established a system for dealing with public health emergencies such as a flu pandemic; and secured funding that led to the command being designated a center for toxicological analysis of emerging contaminants. website hostile work environment

The investigation of Cohen’s management style was prompted by six anonymous and confidential complaints to a Navy hotline.

Cohen was an “intimidator and likes to frighten people and berate them,” one civilian employee wrote.

Another complainant described a command climate “charged with mistrust and fear.” “Please help, we are all afraid and need relief,” a third wrote.

The investigators found more detailed complaints in a September 2010 command climate survey.

Cohen “has managed to bring this command to a new low,” one 20-year staffer wrote. “There is intense abuse of authority.” Another said inconsistent behavior by Cohen had infused the workplace with fear: “I feel like a dog; I don’t know if I am going to get the pat on the head or the newspaper whack on my nose – others feel the same way.” Another compared Cohen to Dr. Jekyll, saying he asserted his power by repeatedly creating an artificial “crisis du jour,” keeping subordinates off kilter with his ever-changing demands.

Still another called the workplace “the most dysfunctional command suite I’ve ever encountered” and said morale and productivity had suffered.

Maybe Cohen is a good doctor, but he is not a good leader, one staffer wrote, calling him “a power hungry authoritarian.” The result was “a total systems failure at the command suite level,” another said. “We’re bleeding out down here.” Cohen has a medical degree from St. George’s University in the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, according to a Navy online biography. He is board-certified in family practice, ambulatory care medicine, undersea medicine and clinical hyperbaric medicine.

The command climate survey contained some positive comments about Cohen, the investigators wrote. But more than half of the command’s leadership interviewed voiced concerns about abuse of authority and a hostile work environment.

Bill Sizemore, 757-446-2276, bill.sizemore@pilotonline.com CAPTION(S):

Capt. Bruce Cohen


  1. wolf tamer and coal miner -  February 12, 2014 - 3:50 am

    JfromI – June 27, 2010 – 4:23 am

    What I’m wondering is this: what was the unusual smell coming from the cereal boxes? I admit that’s a little off-topic, but I’m still curious. And no mention in this about the myth (or fact?) that every barcode has the sinister 666″ contained within it, and is therefore evil. Is this true?

    Evil – June 27, 2010 – 11:10 am

    @JfromI I noticed your post has the sinister number in it. And now so does this hotword page! And now my computer monitor is evil for displaying it. You’re getting evil all over the place! Stop before you kill us all! (and really? can you not just decode a UPC yourself and see that it isn’t true?)

    My comment to both of you: JfromI, read the first paragraph of the article and you will see that the unusual smell isn’t off-topic. Evil, I like your comment; you made me laugh. :)

    About the article: Fascinating; I never knew that before.

  2. Brian -  August 10, 2013 - 8:22 pm

    I was led to believe the first 2 numbers on a barcade are the country of origin, eg 93 Australia, 49 Japan, 00-13 USA. Is this incorrect?

  3. frank -  January 4, 2013 - 2:45 am

    why kellogg’s has 11 out of 12 number

  4. JM in San Diego CA -  December 29, 2012 - 3:55 pm

    For those asking about the bar-code connection to the smell, here’s what I get:

    Bar codes are everywhere and people usually don’t think much about them. This time, the people at hotword took the blast of publicity about the smelly recall and turned it into a teaching moment. After all, Kellog’s probably has their cereal in tens of millions of homes. People in those homes are suddenly more interested in bar codes — more than they’ve ever been.

  5. teylor ortega -  November 6, 2012 - 1:00 am

    Who ever wrote this is lying in every bar code there are 2 thin lines in the beginning 2of
    The same thin line in the middle n 2 at the end ,his two thin lines are longer t…han the other ones too , don’t belive me and go find out your self , each of these two lines means a “6″ so do your math

  6. smite -  February 25, 2012 - 10:26 am

    you can pay money for the food and things that you need

  7. oniya -  February 25, 2012 - 10:12 am

    you are right about the prize on the thng to buy for your family and you

  8. smartie -  October 6, 2011 - 1:13 am

    if you smart a$$ people knew anything about introductions and could read and comprehend you’ll understand exactly what the weird smell coming out of the cereal boxes had 2 do with them telling you about the barcode!!!!!

  9. barcoder -  April 6, 2011 - 7:07 pm

    666 = blasphemy that is in the forehead of a beast that symbolizes an office (e.g. pope, presidency). it has nothing to do with the bar code thing.

  10. barcoder -  April 6, 2011 - 7:03 pm

    666 = blasphemy that is in the forehead of a beast that symbolizes an office (e.g. pope, presidency)/

  11. ccc -  December 18, 2010 - 4:07 pm

    the bar-code has nothing what so-ever to do with the batch. That is what the lot number is for.

  12. ak -  December 18, 2010 - 7:58 am

    wow. are some of you really that stupid? the bad smell could be associated with certain products, all of which have a certain bar code in common. just read the first two sentences (of the article, for you idiots out there)

  13. Nick -  December 18, 2010 - 3:32 am

    the last two digits refer to package size not the nature of a coupon

  14. JEOPARDIZE | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  December 5, 2010 - 10:31 am

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  15. AvidReader -  September 9, 2010 - 4:09 pm

    Cereal… Here’s something scary to think about
    Every person I know of, who has some, but not a lot of time, to eat breakfast in the morning, eat cereal. If no one noticed the ‘bad’ cereal before it was too late… what could happen?

  16. dakra -  June 30, 2010 - 8:44 am

    As A mAtTeR oF fAcT…
    I lEaRn NoThiNg…

  17. Lillian Bennette -  June 28, 2010 - 8:32 pm

    Revelation 13;18 >>starts of ‘here is wisdom’ >>I recommend to take a minute or two to look it up….

  18. Janette Summers -  June 28, 2010 - 7:56 pm

    4L3X4ND32: Does it mean ’666′?

  19. 4L3X4ND32 -  June 28, 2010 - 6:21 pm

    Yes, very interesting. And you what they left out? the very first two lines, middle two lines, and the very last two lines. Just take a wild guess what the “magic” number is? I will be back tomorrow to tell you.
    “knowledge is power”

  20. AJS -  June 28, 2010 - 5:17 pm

    I agree with ASH…
    we should all read Revelation 13 v 18.

  21. ASH -  June 28, 2010 - 4:00 pm

    Adam, if the ’666′ thing was a mis-translation, what is the number?????–Dont you believe in the Holy Bible?

  22. Adam -  June 28, 2010 - 9:13 am

    As I understand the ’666′ thing, it was a mis-translation in Mediaeval times and actually ‘the number of the beast’ should be some quite different number… The bar-code explanation is very helpful…

  23. reggie_b -  June 28, 2010 - 8:40 am

    Good educational article, taught me a lot about bar-codes.

    To anyone commenting about the lack of ‘recall info’ – look at the title, “Learn what bar code numbers mean…” this is an article about bar-codes, NOT the recall – the link to the Kellogg site has all the information you need.

    @Evil: excellent response, humor and sarcasm in correct proportions (2 thumbs up ;)

    I’m happy to tell you that you are correct AND mistaken at the same time.

    Quote: “..The UPC encodes 12 decimal digits as SLLLLLLMRRRRRRE, where S(start) and E(end) are the bit pattern 101, M(middle) is the bit pattern 01010 (called guard bars)…”,
    from: http://www.reference.com/browse /wiki/Universal_Product_Code (referenced in this page)

    As you can see, the pattern for the edges is 101 which – using the standard binary notation – translates to 5 (not 6 which is 110), the ‘Middle’ part also doesn’t translate to 6, nor does any subgroup of sequential digits (bits) taken from it.

    I didn’t even check the link you posted, but if that’s the source of your “math” I would recommend spending your time elsewhere!

    You were right about one thing:
    You can always interpret the bar-code in such a way that will include almost any sequence of 3 digits.
    that is because; a) in the larger sense, the number system is a convention; b) bar-code encoding/decoding is a convention; and c) you can always invent your own expandable set of decoding rules that will result in the “desired” outcome.
    e.g.- a simple substitution: decide that the symbol ’6′ means FIVE, and ’5′ means SIX… all you have to do now is discard all other digits and there you go – evil found :P

    My personal feeling is that the more time we spend looking for something, the more we get in the habit of looking for it – and also that you’ll be happier spending less time looking for evil, and more time promoting truth, compassion and tolerance… just a thought.

  24. CathSidhe -  June 28, 2010 - 8:10 am

    The “strange smell” described in the article emanated from the plastic package within the cereal box– most likely from chemicals used in making the plastic. (Some people also complained of an odd taste, and a few experienced nausea or vomiting.) The incident is connected to the Bar Codes because Kellog’s used them to determine which batch the effected cereal had come from, and which location it was processed and packaged at. This enabled them to determine which boxes needed to be recalled.

  25. George von Braun -  June 28, 2010 - 7:24 am

    I suggest we introduce a prices and incomes policy to the way barcodes are read such that the price of certain products (like bread), can be index-linked to the income of the purchaser.

  26. Danny -  June 28, 2010 - 6:16 am

    It is notable, though, that the oldest known fragment of papyrus listing the number of the beast says that is actually 616, and not 666.

  27. educated -  June 28, 2010 - 4:57 am

    Golly but you Yanks are dumb. Evil numbers in barcodes (one word by the way), conspiracy everywhere. “You should have stayed in school,” is advice I see on a lot of TV programmes (program is computer code)…follow the good advice.

  28. Priyartha -  June 28, 2010 - 4:17 am

    Your demystification of the Bard Code was very interesting and educating. Wish you could have elaborated on the Black and White lines a bit more.

  29. Dave -  June 28, 2010 - 4:06 am

    I just scanned the bar code in the article – it is Yogi Purely Peppermint Herbal Tea, not cereal. At least that’s what Red-Laser says.

  30. comment -  June 28, 2010 - 12:46 am

    666 is the number of a man. Barcode numbers are useful for typing in when the scanners sometimes don’t read barcodes properly at the supermarket.

  31. Chazz Gooden -  June 28, 2010 - 12:02 am

    yes i agree, what does the smell of the packet got anything to do with the barcode?????

  32. note -  June 27, 2010 - 7:59 pm

    The artical states ” …Kellogg’s referred the public to the universal product code (UPC).”
    Kellogg would have notified the public of the bar code number to be recalled, as not all of Kellogg’s products would have the same number.

  33. Casey -  June 27, 2010 - 7:38 pm

    Interesting story…but, uh…
    “On Friday, Kellogg’s recalled about 28 million boxes of cereal because consumers reported a unusual smell coming from the packaging that could potentially make people ill.”
    What does that have to do with ANYTHING in this article…?

  34. cody -  June 27, 2010 - 7:12 pm

    wtf who really cares and what the hell does a barcode have to do with a bad smelling corn flakes box

  35. Comment to Jfromi -  June 27, 2010 - 2:54 pm

    No, bar codes do not contain 666 in a consecutive order. There is one at the beginning, one in the middle, and one at the end. Besides, 666 is an arbitrary number whose significance only lies in Christianity.

  36. Ed -  June 27, 2010 - 12:33 pm

    The 666 thing depends on how you interpret the bar code. According to some, the bar code starts with two skinny lines followed by a space, which they take to mean a 1, another 1, and a 0. 110 is the binary number for 6.

    You can find another grouping like this in the middle and at the end of the barcode, hence 666. Believe it…or not! Below is a link to a website which covers this theory. Paranoia or not? You decide…


  37. Bar code -  June 27, 2010 - 11:30 am

    The bar code at the top of article is for Yogi Tea peppermint flavor. Just in case anyone was wondering

  38. sk -  June 27, 2010 - 11:26 am


  39. Evil -  June 27, 2010 - 11:01 am

    @Jfroml I noticed your post has the sinister number in it. And now so does this hotword page! And now my computer monitor is evil for displaying it. You’re getting evil all over the place! Stop before you kill us all! (and really? can you not just decode a UPC yourself and see that it isn’t true?)

  40. Anne -  June 27, 2010 - 9:35 am

    That is a good question, JfromI. What was the unusual smell and this is the first time I am reading about a Kelloggs recall. About the barcode situation, I worked at WalMart for a number of years and the UPC code saved a lot of leg work. There were some items where the tag was missing and a customer could go to any register and have the cashier check the price instead of being frustrated waiting around for the sales clerk.

  41. Penny -  June 27, 2010 - 6:30 am

    Another example of “sheer waste” (we used to have a teacher called that).
    Couuldn’t someone at Kellogs have smelled something before 28 million boxes were destined to the rubbish heap?

  42. JfromI -  June 27, 2010 - 4:23 am

    What I’m wondering is this: what was the unusual smell coming from the cereal boxes? I admit that’s a little off-topic, but I’m still curious. And no mention in this about the myth (or fact?) that every barcode has the sinister “666″ contained within it, and is therefore evil. Is this true?

  43. Andrew John -  June 27, 2010 - 3:40 am

    very internesting…

  44. PERSNICKETY/CIRCADIAN « BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  June 26, 2010 - 11:36 pm

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