Kitchen Think: Fed Up with Not Being Able to Read Can and Packaging Codes


Why are the codes on cans and other packages so difficult to decipher? I was gathering the ingredients to make a pie and I found a can of evaporated milk pushed way back on the shelf. The can had letters and numbers that meant absolutely nothing to me. I tried to figure it out, but ended up going to the company’s website to see what the heck the jumble meant.

Can’t the food companies just print: Packaged on November 23, 2010. Best by: February 28, 2011? I know that canned food has a shelf life of at least two years from the date of processing if it is stored at a moderate temperature. But I  also know firsthand that canned food can last much longer because I’ve accidentally opened and used cans from my mother’s pantry that she probably bought when Reagan was in office.

The United States Department of Agriculture says high-acid canned foods such as tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple can be stored on the shelf 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods such as meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables will keep 2 to 5 years — if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place. Still, most of us like to use products within the manufactures designated “use by” window. So tell us, clearly, what is that date?

The codes that are stamped on canned and other foods usually indicate when the product was packaged, and sometimes where and what time as well. But how do you solve this puzzle? Each manufacturer has their own system and it is up to us to break the Da Vinci code. Some list the day, month and year that the item was packaged or canned, while others tell you (if you can understand it) the facility and what kind of shoes the plant foreman was wearing. Just kidding. I know this information is important in case of a recall, but why can’t they also use simple, basic dates?

Here is what I have learned which may or may not be helpful: For month coding, numbers 1 through 9 represent January through September and letters O for October, N for November and D for December. If letters are used, A represents January, B is for February, C is for March… and so on. When it comes to indicating the year, some packages have 97 for 1997, 98 for 1998, 01 for 2001, and so on. Unless, of course, they go with one number… 8 for 1998, 9 for 1999… but don’t get that confused with the month coding, where numbers 1 through 9 represent January through September…

I am always grateful when I find a product that say something like, “Tastes Best Before….” But I’d really like it if it also said, “Throw this out by….”

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I’m Christina Chavez

I was a TV journalist for many years, but with a house full of kids I decided to come off the road, go to culinary school and follow my passion for cooking. Mama’s High Strung is all about food… everything from creative recipe ideas to some really cool kitchen gadgets and cooking tips. I live in Chicago, but I love to travel and write about my food discoveries! You can reach me by email: