the barcode :: history & future

28 Jun

Today is the anniversary of the purchase of a pack of gum.

“On June 26, 1974, a white male by the name of Clyde Dawson entered Marsh Supermarket in Troy, Ohio. He loaded up his cart with groceries and approached the checkout line. The cashier that day was Sharon Buchanan. At 8:01 a.m., she picked a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum out of his cart and scanned it. The gum has now been immortalized at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.”

The reason the gum has become something of a national treasure, writes Peter Smith for GOOD, is because it was the first item to be scanned using the Universal Product Code, or UPC, “the nondescript, monochrome rectangle that adorns nearly every retail item we purchase.”

Creative branding by Vanity Barcodes

Oddly, though the barcode has since been used as a “social surveillance tool, a sign of the devil, and an embodiment of the dull commercial uniformity of packaged supermarket goods,” the concept is evolving to something rather interesting. We look to Smith again (yet via a different article) to explain a phenomenon known as “ichthyologic name-swapping,” an intimidating term that simply refers to the fact that fish vendors are making up new types of fish, or selling one species as something else.

“Argentine Roughy, Cherry Snapper, and Salmon Trout only exist at the fish market. They’re fictitious names for fish that don’t exist. … Despite growing awareness about the origins of our food, we’re often served a completely different fish species than the ones we order. This comes with economic costs…[and] obfuscates the origins of fish, so contaminated or toxic food causing health problems often can’t be traced to the source.”

It’s in the next part that the barcode comes back into play.

“What’s interesting is that the same technology scientists and amateur sleuths have been using to detect mislabeled seafood could help combat the confusion and fraud. It’s called DNA barcoding, and it works by comparing gene sequences of a sample fish flesh to the 8,000 varieties stored in the International Barcode of Life Project.”

That project seeks to use its DNA barcodes to combat the market substitution Smith is talking about, but also assist researchers in understanding the natural history and ecology of fish species. Thirty-seven years ago, the barcode was first used to price a pack of chewing gum. In another ten, Smith conjectures, we might see inspectors with hand-held DNA sequencers, reading the genetic codes of the fish being sold around the world.

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