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How To Make The Right Mark: Product Date Codes

Sep 17, 2020 by Mark Dingley

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Do you need a Best Before or Use-By date?

For the health and safety of consumers, Australian manufacturers and suppliers must, by law, determine the shelf life of all packaged food and beverage products.

Australia & New Zealand Food Standards Code states if a product begins to deteriorate in quality or become potentially unsafe to consume within two years of packaging, it must have a date mark indicating how long it will maintain its quality and be safe for eating or drinking.

These 'shelf-life' food safety codes fall into two categories: Use-by date and best before date. When printed on secondary packaging, these date markings act as a guide for consumers and help retailers manage stock turnaround to reduce food wastage.

In this handy guide, we explain which codes you should be using for particular product classes, the general rules, along with an overview of the available coding and marking technology.

 

Use-By Date

As the code suggests, a use-by date marks food and beverage products that must be consumed before the date indicated on the packaging.

Regardless of how a product may look or smell, if the use-by date has expired, the item must be considered unsafe for human consumption because the food may have become unstable, or bacteria may be present.

Due to the potential health or safety risk, packaged food products cannot legally be sold past their use-by date. Because steep penalties apply for non-compliance retailers must rely on manufacturers to mark products with clear and accurate date codes.

Use-by date codes are typically used for high risk and most perishable food items, particularly those requiring refrigeration, such as:

  • Dairy produce, e.g. milk, yoghurt, soft cheeses
  • Meat produce, e.g. pre-packaged sliced or shaved deli meats
  • Ready-prepared salads or meals
  • Prepared fish, e.g. smoked trout or salmon

Best-Before Date

Unlike a use-by date, a product marked with a best-before date may be still safe to be consumed after that date; however, the manufacturer has determined that the quality of the food will start to deteriorate from its peak.

If stored correctly, foods with a best-before date will retain their colour, taste, texture and flavour and be fit for human consumption.

Also, foods and drinks with best-before dates can still be sold after that date, because it should be safe to eat provided the item looks and smells as the consumer expects. Retailers will often discount goods that have past their Best-Before date to make way for new stock.

Use-by date codes are typically marked onto low risk and more stable products, such as:

  • Canned foods
  • Frozen foods
  • Shelf-stable products, e.g. cereals, biscuits, sauces, etc
  • Confectionery
  • Pantry dry goods, e.g. sugar, flour, etc

Date Code Requirement Exceptions

 

Even though most consumables will have either a use-by or best-before date, some food categories don't require date marks of any kind; these include:

 
  • Long Life Goods, these are foods where the expected shelf life is greater than two years, such as canned foods. There is no requirement to provide a date mark because it is unreasonable to expect a manufacturer to predict how long these foods will keep accurately, and it is reasonable to assume it will likely be consumed well before spoiling.
  • Food items in packages smaller than 100mm2 — unless it poses a health or safety risk if the food is not consumed within a specific time frame.
  • Individually portioned ice-cream or ice-confectionary products.
  • Bread, which can be labelled instead with an individual "baked on" or "baked for" date code.

If you have a consumable product and are still unsure which date code category it falls into we always recommend double-checking the Food Standards Code.

Technologies for Making Date Marks

Depending on the type of packaging and your production environment, you have a variety of technologies to help you meet your date coding and batch coding obligations.

 

Some of the most popular technologies include:

  • Small Character Continuous Inkjet (CIJ) printer - for high-volume applications CIJ is a highly reliable and low-cost option. Date mark goods using fast-drying ink at speeds of up to 120,000 drops per second. These printers offer the ability to print variable information on most primary or secondary packaging, sizes and substrates, even with surface moisture, making them ideal for date coding.
  • Drop-On-Demand Inkjet Printers (DOD), make low to medium resolution marks and are an extremely versatile and easy way to print codes and marks onto a wide range of substrates, including fibre cartons, shrink-wrap, cardboard, and secondary packaging.
  • Thermal Transfer Overprinter (TTO), produce crisp and durable date codes on porous, non-porous and flexible packaging for food and beverage products, including film packaging, labels and gloss surfaces. These are the printer of choice for date coding snack foods, confectionery, smallgoods and fresh produce.
  • High-Resolution Laser Inkjet, these versatile printers provide optimum print resolution and high-speed printing of date codes onto both primary and secondary packaging. Able to code onto a wide range of substrates, including glass, plastics, metal and cardboard, making them an excellent choice for high-quality date marks for liquids, water, beverages and snack foods, they are particularly suited to the wine industry.
 
Technologies for Making Date Marks
 

5 Essential Tips for Date Coding

  • 1 Make date codes indelible. Because it is a law to have a date code on most consumables, the code must be a permanent, highly durable mark.
  • 2 Make date codes visible. Ensure date codes are crisp, clear and easy to read by the end consumer.
  • 3 Future-proof your business. When deciding which date coder technology to invest in choose one that can print on a variety of packaging materials and substrates, so it can mark new product lines you may launch in the future.
  • 4 Eliminate date-coding errors. Choosing a date coder that can be integrated with a software solution, such as Matthews iDSnet, ensures that the right date code is printed on the right product at the right time. Supplement with vision inspection to check that the code is both present and in the proper format.
  • 5 Include storage advice. Often for a product to maintain its quality until the best-before or use-by date, it will require specific storage conditions, as such these storage instructions must also be printed on the label, e.g. "Keep in a cool, dry place."
 

As the industry experts in all things coding and marking for Australian manufacturers, if you need advice on date coding, contact Matthews, one of our friendly team, will be happy to help.