HOWTO: Decipher Food Manufacturer Codes

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However, if you can't remember which can of peas to keep in the pantry and which ones have botulism, this trick can help you decide which cans throw away.

On the Today Show this morning, food editor Phil Lempert showed America how to figure out when your food was really manufactured.

Doing so involves making some phone calls to a company’s customer service so it’s not so good for in-store decisions.

However, if you can’t remember which can of peas to keep in the pantry and which ones have botulism, this trick can help you decide which cans throw away.

After the jump, the inside scoop on decrypting the codes.

From the Today Show transcript:

    “To illustrate, we’ll use a box that has a code on the top of the box as — J528W3.

    To find the manufacturer code, look near the expiration date or at the top of the package. Most codes are imprinted at the time of product manufacture, so look for an embossed or ink-jet series of letters and numbers.

    The first letter, J, denotes the month the product was manufactured. Don’t be confused — J does not mean January or June. Most food companies start their manufacturing year in June and start their coding with the letter A. That means that A is June, B is July, etc. The exception is the letter I, which is never used to avoid the possible confusion with the number 1. Counting the months, we find that J refers to February.

    The first number, 5, refers to the last number in the year of manufacture. Since few foods have a 10-year shelf life, it’s safe to assume that it refers to 2005.

    The next two numbers, 2 and 8, are the exact day of manufacture: 28. So far, with J528, we have figured out that the manufacturing date was February 28, 2005. Remember that this is the date the product was made. It does not refer to the freshness or expiration date. Some products are manufactured two months or more before they are delivered to the supermarket.

    Next we have the W. Here’s where you have to call the manufacturer for clarification. Most times, it is a plant designation and tells us the city of manufacture. In this instance, for example, by calling the company we learned that W is their code for the company’s West Chicago plant.

    Last, we see a 3. Here again, check with the manufacturer. It often refers to a particular shift, crew or machine. Most times it means third shift.

    We’ve deciphered the code! This package was made on February 28, 2005, in the company’s West Chicago plant on the third shift.

    Why is that important? If you have a complaint about product quality, knowing how to read these codes can help the company track down the problem. And in the case of a product recall, you can immediately tell if you have a particular package of the recalled product.

    But most importantly, you can tell how fresh a product is. You can calculate the time between manufacture and when you find it on the shelf and compare it to the freshness or sell-by date. Now you can really choose the freshest package.”

This sounds so fun we think we’ll buy some canned vegetables just to try it out. Then we’ll learn how to make ghosts out of toilet paper and laundry clips.

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