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What is a GS1 barcode?

GS1 (Global Standards 1) is a not-for-profit organisation that works closely with industries to agree how information should be stored in a barcode. This ensures organisations around the world can extract meaningful information about a product when its barcode is scanned.

In most cases, a barcode is simply a unique identifier that allows computer systems to track physical objects in the real world. In fact, any information can be encoded in a barcode, but unless the organisation scanning the barcode understands how the data was encoded and can extract and make sense of that data, it’s of little use.

That’s the problem a GS1 barcode solves. Organisations agree on how information should be encoded and understand how to extract that data.

Why are GS1 barcodes important?

To understand why GS1 barcodes are important, first, let’s consider the lifecycle of a product:

  1. Manufacturer - sources raw materials and creates a product
  2. Courier 1 - collects the product and delivers to a distributor
  3. Distributor - resells the product to a retailer
  4. Courier 2 - collects the product and delivers to a retailer
  5. Retailer - places the product on a shelf for you to purchase

What we’ve outlined above is called a Supply Chain. Each step is often a separate organisation, using a different computer system, maybe in another country and speaking another language. To ensure each organisation can identify and track the same product, the product must be identifiable to computer systems - this is where barcodes come in.

Using GS1 barcodes to track medical equipment, like an asthma inhaler, reduces risks to patients
Using GS1 barcodes to track medical equipment, like an asthma inhaler, reduces risks to patients

Now let’s imagine that product is an Asthma Inhaler that expires 12 months after the date of manufacture. Without a GS1 barcode, each organisation would need to continuously, visually check every product in their warehouses to ensure they had not expired before shipping.

However, an expiration date can be embedded into a GS1 barcode, allowing computer systems at each point in the journey to automatically detect an expired product so it can be removed from the supply chain - ensuring it never reaches a patient.

Now let’s imagine six months after producing an asthma inhaler, the manufacturer discovers a core ingredient used in the batch was contaminated. Because each product has a globally unique identifier (GS1 barcode), the manufacturer can issue a product recall across the entire supply chain - simply by providing the unique barcode number. Again, reducing the risk to consumers.

Who uses GS1 barcodes?


Almost every product you purchase from a retailer includes a GS1 barcode (also known as a UPC). The retailer scans the product at the checkout to pull up its price (removing the need to add pricing stickers to every item). When the product is sold - the quantity in stock is reduced, triggering an automatic notification to purchase more of that product. This ensures retailers always have sufficient stock without manually counting every item in the store.


Hospitals are like 24/7 people factories; they receive a constant flow of broken people, fix them, and return them to society. To do this, they use a combination of people (medical professionals), equipment (medical devices) and drugs (pharmaceuticals). However, unlike factories, hospitals don’t know ahead of time the number of people they will need to fix on a daily basis.

Long hours and an unpredictable workload mean mistakes are highly likely; however, a mistake in a hospital could result in the loss of life. Because of this, governments around the world regulated the use of GS1 barcodes. Upon entering a hospital, patients are given a barcoded wristband containing information about who they are. Before any medication is administered, the wristband is scanned to verify the identity of the patient, and the medication is also scanned to confirm this patient is to receive this medication. Helping to reduce the risk of errors.

How does a GS1 barcode work?

Companies wishing to use a globally unique barcode on their products must first register with GS1 to obtain a GS1 company prefix for their organisation. Using this prefix and guidance provided by GS1, companies can generate new globally unique barcodes for their products.

What is the difference between GS1 and UPC?

A UPC (Universal Product Code) barcode is a type of GS1 barcode; however, it only contains enough information to identify a specific type of product (typically a retail Item) and does not contain any additional information such as an expiry date or lot number.

Do I need a GS1 barcode?

If you are creating a product and plan to sell it online or pass it to another organisation to resell, then yes, a GS1 barcode is essential. If you are simply purchasing retail products to resell, there is a good chance they already contain a GS1 barcode.

What does GS1 UK approval mean?

The Orca Scan system has undergone a thorough testing process by GS1 UK’s standards experts and has successfully demonstrated the ability to correctly capture and extract GS1 data from a barcode in order to become GS1 UK-Approved. This is a crucial requirement in healthcare when you consider data stored in pharmaceutical and medical device barcodes often contain expiration dates.

Is GTIN the same as GS1?

No. A GTIN is a Global Trade Item Number, a core component of the GS1 barcode. GS1 is the organisation responsible for issuing GTINs.

How many companies use GS1 barcodes?

It is estimated that over 2 million companies around the world use GS1 barcodes to ensure their products can be identified and tracked across supply chains.

Where are GS1 based?

GS1 is headquartered in Brussels, Belgium and has 116 neutral and independent GS1 organisations operating worldwide.

How do I extract data from a GS1 barcode?

Orca Scan makes it easy to extract data from GS1 barcodes; simply add a new field and enter a GS1 Orca Variable as the default value for that field. Then, whenever you scan a GS1 barcode that contains that specific GS1 value, the value will appear in that field.

Need help tracking GS1 barcodes?

Orca Scan is a GS1 UK-Approved barcode tracking app that can be downloaded from the Apple or Android app store and installed on any Apple or Android device, including DataLogic, Honeywell and Zebra barcode scanners. Our engineers worked closely with GS1 to understand the specifications and ensure Orca Scan can capture, extract and store GS1 data from any barcode, using any device in a GS1-compliant way.

Download the free Orca Scan app and scan a GS1 barcode to get started.

Ready to start scanning?