중앙데일리

What do the dates on food product labels mean?

They tell us the last date by which the food is safe to consume.

Oct 28,2008
When you buy food in department stores, discount marts or markets, what are the first things you check before putting the products into your basket?

After the price tag, it’s usually the expiration date. But did you know that as consumers, we can’t actually be certain whether the “best before” date on food packages is correct?

We have to put our trust in the company that manufactured the product, and hope that they have labeled the expiration date correctly.

On a related issue, dairy products from China were recently found to contain melamine, a toxic chemical that can cause kidney stones. Melamine is a chemical mainly used for producing plastics and glues.

This has added to growing concern over food safety issues.

A JoongAng Ilbo article on Oct. 9 reported that E-Mart has, since April 2006, cut the “legal” expiration date set by the government by half for all of its food products.

So for example, if a food product has an expiration date of seven to nine days, E-Mart throws it away after four days.

The company said that it made the move in order to put food safety above all else.

It said that in addition to considering the shelf life of a food product, it also calculated the time taken for the consumer to purchase the item, take it home and consume it.

So what is an expiration date and how does the government set one?

The Korea Food and Drug Administration defines an expiration date as “the latest permissible date for a product to be sold to a consumer.”

This has implications. Before this date, the food company takes all responsibility for anything wrong or contaminated with the food product.

The expiration date is set for each food product based on how it’s processed, manufactured and stored, the ratio of raw materials used and the packaging.

Once each product is assigned an expiration date, it is tested by the food administration.

Separate tests are conducted depending on the product’s recommended storage temperature, for example, whether it’s stored at room temperature, in the refrigerator or in the freezer.

Retailers selling the product need to comply with the storage temperature given in the administration’s guidelines.

Products which have a relatively long expiration date - over 15 days - are subject to further testing.

These products are kept for a period beyond their expiration date to see how fast microorganisms form on them.

The food and drug administration sets an expiration date for all manufactured foods which are vulnerable to contamination and rotting.

Most bread products have an expiration date of five days if stored at room temperature. Fish cakes, a popular local snack, can be stored for up to eight days in the refrigerator.

Fried foods perish within one day at room temperature. Tofu usually lasts for three days in the refrigerator.

Foods that consumers should watch out for the most, however, are sandwiches, hamburgers and gimbap found in convenience stores.

These foods have a short average expiration date of seven to 10 hours if kept at room temperature.

So on days when temperatures are above 15 degrees Celsius (59 F), consumers should double check the expiration date on the package before buying any of these products.

There are foods which do not have expiration dates, such as fruit, vegetables and seafood.

The food administration does not give these products “legal” expiration dates because they have not been manufactured or processed.

Sugar, salt and gum are also exempt from a requiring an expiration date.

These products have a low water content, making them less susceptible to contamination and growth of microorganisms.

Most ice creams, for example, do not have an expiration date.

These days, many discount stores sell ice cream in packages of 10 for a discount price of around 3,000 won ($2.08).

Chances are that in most cases, these products have no expiration date but were made a long time ago.

Although the ice cream companies say that the their products are fine as long as they are kept in the freezer, some experts warn that they might not be safe.

What are the rules concerning expiration dates on imported products?

Local import companies or retailers selling these imported food products do not put an expiration date on them.

For these products, the original expiration date designated by the country that Korea imported the product from is the only and final one.

If an importer tries to change this date, they will be punished by law.

So how do we interpret the expiration dates on food labels?

The KFDA has released guidelines for manufacturers to print expiration dates.

The most commonly used format is the year, month and day from left to right. So for example, if a product’s “best before” date is Oct. 31, 2008, its expiration date would read 2008.10.31.

There are products which state the date of manufacture rather than expiration.

In these cases, the label should state the date that the product was manufactured and how long from this date the product can be sold.

But not all products follow this convention.

For canned foods, the expiration month is sometimes marked by the first letter of the month’s spelling in English. So October would read “O” and November would read “N.”

Beverages may have only the expiration year and month and milk and yogurt just the expiration day.

All foods which have expiration dates should have their storage instructions clearly marked, i.e. whether they should be kept refrigerated, frozen or at room temperature.

For imported foods however, it can get a bit trickier. Most products still follow the year-month-day order for expiration dates. They may also be labelled “BE” or “BEE,” which stand for “Best Before.”

“Consume Before” also refers to the expiration date. “P,” “PRO” or “PRD” stand for the day that the product was manufactured.

There are more complicated labels as well.

What do you think “1004LJ23” stands for? The first two numbers, “10,” stands for the month, the second set, “04,” stand for the year, and the third set, “23,” stand for the day. The letters “LJ” are the manufacturing code.

So this particular product should have bought and consumed before Oct. 23, 2004.

What about a product with the expiration date “M0409411?”

This means that the item was made on April 4, 2004. The “M” stands for “manufacturing,” the “04” stands for 2004, “094” stands for the 94th day of the year (which is April 4 in this case). Also, “11” stands for the production line that the product sat on.

Lastly, what about a label reading “I03H30?”

This means that the product was manufactured on Sept. 30, 2003. The “I” stands for the ninth letter of the English alphabet, which gives the month (September) and “03” indicates the year 2003. “H” stands for the production factory and “30” stands for the manufacturing day.


By Moon Byung-joo JoongAng Ilbo [jainnie@joongang.co.kr]





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