Understanding Package Codes

November 05, 2010

What do all those package codes and numbers mean? Can they help us choose a product, or are they just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo?

What do all those package codes and numbers mean? Can they help us choose a product, or are they just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo?

These codes can be one of the most valuable tools in deciphering the freshness of a product. Unfortunately, just like in the case of freshness dating, there is no mandatory or universal standard for these codes.

The easiest way to decipher these is to call a manufacturer's toll-free number and ask. But that's not always possible, especially while you're shopping. Here are some basic guidelines you can follow to help figure out the codes yourself. Keep in mind that each manufacturer might follow a different procedure.

To illustrate, we'll use a box of General Mills' Bugles. The code on the top of the box is J628W3.

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 Bugles were 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, 6, 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 1996.

The next two numbers, 2 and 8, are the exact day of manufacture: 28. So far, with J628, we have figured out that the manufacturing date was February 28, 1996. 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, by calling General Mills I 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. General Mills told me, in this case, it meant third shift. 

We've deciphered the code! This box of Bugles was made on February 28, 1996, in General Mills' 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.

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.