One of the key reasons grocery items become overstocks or problem products is a result of date coding issues. Dating on food products is an indication of product quality. It provides information on when the quality of the product may start deteriorating in quality, flavor or color.
The Federal Government, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), does not require food dating on products on a nation-wide basis. The only exception to this is for baby food and baby formula which is regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There are twenty states which do require dating on specific food items. (1)
Many retailers will have a cut-off date after which they will not take in product close to reaching its code date. Generally, mainstream supermarkets and specialty stores will not accept product with less than six months dating for shelf-stable products. Fresh or refrigerated items have a shorter time-frame due to the nature of the products.
Dating issues are an important part of inventory control management. Manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers need to understand the implication of short coded items.
It’s also important for consumers to understand date codes so they know the freshness of the items they purchase.
There are two types of dating on food products: Open Dating and Closed Dating. Most products have Open Dating.
Open Dating shows a calendar date (for example, 5/2/21 or May 2, 2021) on the package which is applied by the manufacturer. The calendar date provides information noting the estimated date until the product will be of best quality. (2)
In addition to the date on a package, there is an adjacent notation designating what the date means. The most common wording options used are noted below.
- Best By Date / Best Before: Identifies the date at which a product’s flavor, color or quality will start to decline. There is nothing wrong with the product from a safety standpoint.
The Best By Date is the most common identifier for Open Dating.
- Sell By Date: “Tells the store how long to display the product for sale (and) for inventory management.” (3) This is not a food safety date, rather a food quality date (flavor or color, for example).
- Use By Date: Designates “. . . the last date for use of the product while at peak quality”. For maximum product quality it should be used by the date noted. This is not a food safety date, only a product quality date. (3)
Note that the above four identifiers – Best By Date, Best Before Date, Sell By Date and Use By Date – are not food safety dates, only identifiers of the best product quality. (4)
The term Expiration Date is a general term for the dating of products. The use of the term “Expiration Date” (EXP) is not mandated by Federal regulation. It is usually not found on shelfstable products, though some company’s which import products to the US use it (1)
Expiration Dates are often used for fresh foods such as dairy, meat, chicken, etc. This designation reflects possible food safety issues. For example, milk can become spoiled after the Expiration Date on the label.
In 2017 the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) both recommended using standard terms “Best If Used By” and “Use By.” The groups recommend “Best If Used By” be used to “indicate to the consumer that, after a specified date, the product may not taste or perform as expected but is safe to be used or consumed.” The group recommends that “Use By” “applies to perishable products that should be consumed by the date on the package and discarded after that date.” (5) At this time, these recommendations have not been mandated by the USDA and specific dating terminology is left to the individual manufacturer.
Some products use Closed Dating on their products. Closed Dating is a code that consists of a series of letters and/or numbers applied by manufacturers to identify the date and time of production. These are internal codes which generally need an explanation to read. The purpose is to identify a variety of characteristics of the product including the date and year packed, line on which the product was made and time of day the product was produced.
Julian Coding is the most common Closed Date code. Julian Coding identifies the day of the year as a three-digit number beginning with the first day of the calendar year, January 1, being designated by 001. Thus, 124 translates to the 124th day of the year which is March 28.
There are a variety of formats for companies that use Julian Coding including some that record various letters or numbers to identify internal information about their products. If you are not a manufacturer and desire to understand the code on an item which uses Closed Dating, it is best to contact the manufacturer.
It is important for manufacturers to be aware of the dating on all of their inventory. As dating on a specific item becomes short action should be taken to be sure to sell it to maximize the return
on these products.
In future blogs I will discuss more on guidelines for the best timing and pricing at which to sell short-dated products.
If you want to learn more about Date Coding and the effect it has on your inventory, contact The Lansing Group by phone, 312-524-6117, or email, firstname.lastname@example.org
- USDA Food Safety Inspection Service
- Food Safety News, A Lesson in Food Product Dating
- USDA Food Safety Inspection Service.
- USDA letter May 23, 2019