​Reading Food Expiration Date Codes Effectively

Expiration dates can be hard to locate on a product and even more challenging to decipher. Currently, the United States does not have a regulated or standard system for coding expiration dates on food, except for those on baby food and infant formula. All other dates and codes are added voluntarily by manufacturers.

There are two types of expiration codes on products. The first is open dating, which uses a standard time or calendar date. These dates are typically followed by labels, such as “use-by”, “sell-by”, or “pull-by”. Use-by dates are intended for consumers and indicate when a product will start to deteriorate, while the latter two are for grocery stores to know how long to keep products displayed on the shelves. Typically, products are good for seven to ten days past their sell-by or pull-by dates. However, this is only a guideline. For instance, even the posted sell-by or best-if-used-by label found on many dry goods, such as canned food items, may not reflect the most accurate shelf life of these products. Canned goods may in fact last months beyond the expiration code if stored and handled effectively.

Closed coding is another form of listing expiration dates on products. These codes are typically a short string of numbers and sometimes letters stamped at the top or bottom of products. Unlike open dating, closed coding is used not by consumers, but by manufacturers, so as to assist with inventory tracking.

Given that there is not one unified translation system for closed coding, learning to read these labels can often prove to be tricky.

In coding, if letters are used to signify months, “A” will indicate January all the way to December ending with “L”. Next to these letters will typically be numbers indicating the day and the year. However, sometimes the numbered year will come before the letter. On the other hand, if numbers are used to signify the month, 1-9 will represent January to September, while the last three months will be assigned the first letter of their name, respectively (O for October, N for November, and D for December).

Codes may also be comprised exclusively of numbers typically presented in the standard order of MMDDYY or YYMMDD (e.g., September 12, 2016 would be 091216 or 160912). Some codes also abide by the Julian calendar, which assigns a number to each day of the year from 1 to 365. In this case, September 12 would be 255.

Again, there is no definitive translation system for private expiration codes, as each manufacturer uses their own unique system. Still, learning these various forms of coding could eventually assist in reading these seemingly complex food expiration date codes with a bit more ease.

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