You’ve probably never really thought about the barcode but it’s on every product in the UK and has a profound impact on our NHS, retail landscapes, food industries and the economy

The first UK barcode scan took place on 2 October 1979, at Keymarkets in Spalding, Lincolnshire. Today, on the 40th anniversary of the barcode in the UK, there is no doubt it has transformed industry at home and is scanned more than 70,000 times around the world every second.

Did you ever think that the unique number under a simple barcode (GTIN), could tell you what farm the wheat in your cornflakes came from, or if it was organic, or if the box it came in was fully recyclable?

Health service

The barcode has revolutionised the NHS, saving thousands of lives and a projected £7bn over seven years. Barcodes uniquely identify every person, product and place – helping to enhance patient safety, reduce unwarranted clinical variation and improve operational efficiencies.

Barcodes are used to help manage health records and identify medications, determining whether products are safe to use and still in date. This makes processes much more efficient and frees up precious time for doctors and nurses. Theatre procedures are now scanned to record important data and reduce human error, and every baby born in an English hospital can be identified through the application of an NHS number using GS1 standards.

Food industry

Impressive technology is under development which will enable consumers to scan their products to find out exactly what ingredients it contains and where they came from, meaning that a humble barcode could potentially prevent allergy deaths and reduce the need for product recalls.

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New barcoding technology could allow people to see a product’s journey from start to finish – that could mean vegetables going from farm to fork, or seeing a bottle of wine go from grape to glass. The advantage of this is that if contamination enters the food supply chain, it will be possible to identify it at source, isolate it and remove the items quickly.

Barcodes could also be essential to future recycling schemes in the UK. Customers will receive money back on plastic, aluminium and glass receptacles returned to reverse-vending machines, all tracked by barcode.

Retail landscape

Barcodes are used by every key retailer and brand in the world, allowing them to uniquely identify all products so that they can easily be tracked through supply chains.

They have enabled digital marketplaces to be so successful – for example, Amazon, eBay and Google Shopping require sellers to use barcode numbers on all of their listings to authenticate products and make sure that shoppers can find, compare and buy products that they trust quickly and easily. In turn, this has helped small businesses excel online, making it easier to trade throughout the UK and expand internationally.

Forty years ago, a barcode was just a single scan on a single product. Today it’s much, much more.

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